The Fantasy of the February Vatican Meeting

Vatican synod hall empty

Sometimes people call me a pessimist. How about: Realist.

Our beloved bishops met in Baltimore. Card. DiNardo concluded things by saying:

I am sure that the conversation the global Church will have in February will help us eradicate the evil of sexual abuse from our Church.

Three problems here.

1. The speaker of these words

Last week the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called upon Card. DiNardo to resign as President of the US conference of Catholic bishops. As you remember, dear reader, the police arrested one of Card. DiNardo’s episcopal vicars in Houston on sex-abuse charges. The police proceeded to raid two parish offices, and the office of the local Catholic mental-health treatment center.

DiNardo had known about the abuse for the past eight years. He had promised one of the victims that the abusing priest would never again have the opportunity to interact with children. But the priest continued in parish ministry until his arrest in September.

2. The meeting in February

In three months and six days, the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences will meeting in Rome. For the first time. Ever.

No customs exist to guide the proceedings. Will every president have ten minutes to speak? If so, that will occupy nineteen hours. That fills two and a-half of the four days scheduled for the meeting. One assumes that the pope and some Vatican officials will also speak.

Doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Like discussion. Or voting on anything.

No public documents governing the February meeting exist. The only written reference to the meeting is a September 12 “Communiqué of the Council of Cardinals.” (The “Council of Cardinals” is itself a body without a history or any clear authority.)

Have the presidents of the bishops conferences received official invitations to the meeting from Pope Francis himself? If so, what do those invitations say?

(To be honest with you, dear reader, I think it is likely that, at this moment, some bishops’ conference presidents do not know anything about this meeting yet. Some presidents certainly will not appear, owing to ill health; some may not appear because they never heard anything about it.)

The Catholic world has Roman-rite and non-Roman-rite bishops’ conferences. The Roman-rite conferences fall into twelve regions. I believe there are 114 Roman-rite conferences. Plus a handful of non-Roman conferences.

A meeting of bishops’ conference presidents cannot claim proportional representation; it will make our US Senate look proportional by comparison. Huge conferences–like our own, or India’s, or Brazil’s–have one president. So do small conferences, like New Zealand, Liberia, or Latvia.

The presidents of bishops’ conferences do not all speak Italian. I would daresay that only a tiny minority of them do.

Last month the Vatican hosted a Synod of Bishops. Some Synod fathers complained about having to vote on a final document that they could not understand, since it had been written in Italian and no translations had been made. As of today, the Vatican website still has only the Italian version of the final Synod document; no translations.

What text will serve as a point-of-departure for the meeting?

In August our Holy Father published a “Letter to the People of God,” reacting to the Pennsylvania grand-jury report.

The pope insisted that all Christians must live in solidarity with the victims of sexual abuse. He invited us all to fast and do penance. He condemned “clericalism.” He called sexual abuse an “atrocity.”

Will this letter serve as the point-of-departure for the February meeting?

If so, I foresee some problems. Imprecisely lumping sexual abuse in with ‘atrocities’–acts of cruelty usually associated with war–does not help. ‘Clericalism’ is a problem in search of a definition.

But if the Holy Father’s letter will not serve as the point-of-departure for discussion, what will? Will the Holy See publish anything between now and then? If so, when?

My point here: I think we fall into naivete of the most blameworthy kind if we imagine that one four-day meeting of the world’s bishops’ conference presidents will result in anything specific or concrete. Best case scenario for the February meeting: Universal agreement that sexual abuse is bad.

3. Card. DiNardo promised the impossible: “The eradication of sexual abuse from our Church.”

I think we can rest assured: If human efforts could eradicate sexual abuse from the Church, St. Peter himself would have done it. But in this real, fallen world of ours, we have to contend with unpleasant things like people sexually abusing minors.

The problem we have in the Catholic Church is: No one running the operation has any idea what to do when sexual abuse occurs. That has been The Scandal. Still is.

And the fantasy that the February Vatican meeting will address the scandal is itself quite scandalous.

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Proposed USCCB Letter

James Grein speaking in Baltimore
James Grein speaking yesterday in Baltimore

No one asked me. But if a bishop at the meeting in Baltimore asked me, “What should we do?” I would say:

Circulate the following letter for the signature of all the members of the conference, then send it to Theodore McCarrick…

 

Dear Brother,

 

Mr. James Grein has lodged testimony against you. He says you sexually abused him for two decades. Others have also testified that you abused them.

We believe these charges. You yourself have given us no choice but to believe them. You have not denied them.

We all saw your intelligence and charisma when you led this conference through the sex-abuse scandal of 2002. But, amazingly, you had these crimes on your conscience at that time. How could you manage to stand in the limelight, knowing how dishonest you were?

Your dishonesty at that crucial moment in the history of the Church in America has now scandalized our people–and us–so thoroughly that we hardly know what to do.

We condemn you for what you have done. The debt you owe to James, and to all the people you have wronged; the debt you owe to society, to the Church–it is staggering, terrifying to imagine.

We beg you to go on the record and admit the truth in full. Please do so, under oath, and before suitable witnesses. Admit everything: all your crimes, all your hypocrisy. Acknowledge the damage you have done to others, to the integrity of your office as priest and bishop–the damage you have done to the integrity of our Church.

For our sake, for the sake of those you abused and harmed so deeply, for the sake of all the Christian people, and for your sake: Admit the truth. Repent of your sins. Beg God’s mercy, before it’s too late. Too late for us, and too late for you.

 

Fraternally in Christ, Your brother bishops of the USA

USCCB 2002: A McCarrick Memory

baltimore

As you know, dear reader, over these past months, memories from my seminarian days have surfaced, making me wince with pain as I realize what they actually meant.

Our American bishops have their annual meeting in Baltimore this week. The big news is that the Vatican nixed any voting on “policy remedies” to the sex-abuse problem.

The whole thing has me remembering the annual meeting sixteen years ago, when then-Cardinal McCarrick pretty much called the shots. (And when the supposedly “monarchical” Pope John Paul II allowed the bishops conference a lot more leeway than the supposedly “synodal” Pope Francis allows them now.)

Anyway, at that meeting in 2002, McCarrick seemed quite preoccupied with something. He insisted that the scandal of that year meant that any priest who committed sex abuse from then onward would have to suffer “zero-tolerance,” exclusion from ministry for good. But he insisted it wouldn’t be fair to make zero-tolerance retroactive. We can’t give second chances anymore. But we can’t revoke the second chances that we already gave.

At the time, many of us who were paying attention allowed McCarrick to manipulate our minds into seeing this as a fair and equitable solution. Of course it was not: It meant that the victims of abuses that happened before 2002 had to continue to see their abusers stand at the altar, interact with young people, and possibly begin to manipulate and abuse others.

Since 2002, sitting bishops have only addressed pre-2002 abuses when victims have made them do so. It is precisely the outcry of those very pre-2002 victims, who never got justice—their outcry has produced the Scandal of 2018. May God reward them for fearlessly standing up. And forcing us all to face the truth and live in it.

Looking back, we see: Theodore McCarrick desperately wanted to keep the pre-2002 truth hidden. And now we know why: When he spoke with such apparent “equanimity” about old cases, he spoke with pure self-interest. He was himself guilty. He wanted to continue to give a second chance to himself. He couldn’t be bothered to consider his victims, and their having a chance for a decent life. He just wanted to let himself off the hook, in his own tortured mind. He wanted to tell himself: okay, you have to cut it out from now on. But the previous dalliances? They should not face strict scrutiny; they can remain hidden.

…Oh, that McCarrick had actually been honest with himself sixteen years ago! Openly acknowledged the full truth about all the destructive, evil things he had done! Stood before the assembled bishops and admitted the now-known fact. Namely, that he deserved to be defrocked. And deserved to spend some serious time in jail.

If he had just admitted it, and given us all a chance to start fresh back then, in 2002–where would we be now? We would all be part of an institution with a great deal more integrity than it currently has.

Could the our bishops bring themselves to discuss these cold, hard facts right now? Could they examine how Baltimore 2002 had this big lie at the heart of it? (Which made Baltimore 2018 necessary.)

Don’t they see? If they did that–if they reckoned honestly with facts, instead of blah blah blah-ing endlessly on the purely theoretical level–if they studied reality, in other words–the sad reality of how Theodore McCarrick the liar made fools of them all–then they could begin to heal the Church.

They could do this; there’s nothing stopping them. But they won’t. None of them, from the Nuncio on down, even have the courage to say McCarrick’s name.

The haplessness of Baltimore 2018 comes as no surprise. We know perfectly well that, for now, the holy Catholic Church has a hierarchy made up of flimflamming, dithering cowards.

Maybe someday that will change.

In the meantime, we have the Lord, the Christ, the eternal Bridegroom. We belong to the Catholic Church because of Him. I am a priest because of Him. He will see His Church through.

For the Seventies Children

We Nixon babies have a unique relationship with “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” The sound of these songs offers us pre-conscious comfort.

Indeed, I love Queen. Like Sebastian loved Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.* When the Washington Bullets won the NBA in 1978, my aunt, my brother, and I stood in front of our black-and-white tv and sang “We Are the Champions” until our throats hurt.

And I love Queen not just because Freddie Mercury was the white Prince. (Freddie Mercury wasn’t even really white, exactly.)

Bohemian_Rhapsody_posterIf you, dear devoted reader, don’t even know that they just came out with a “biographical movie” about Queen, that’s cool. If you don’t care to give a thought to Freddie Mercury, no problem.

But this conservative priest did not hesitate to run out and see Bohemian Rhapsody. And it gave me a lot of joy.

Not because it’s a good movie. It’s not. It’s a narrative pastiche which most serious critics have justly panned. The one thing all the reviewers concede is: fine acting by the fellow who plays Freddie Mercury. But I can’t even agree to that. The poor guy does not seem anything at all like Freddie Mercury to me.

And the movie disappoints by failing to include some songs which I would list as absolutely essential Queen songs. Like: Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Which the band actually did perform at the 1985 Live-Aid set around which the movie revolves. But Bohemian Rhapsody cruelly skips that part.

However: This movie made my month anyway. It reminded me of an incredibly comforting fact that I had almost forgotten. The world once considered Queen’s joie de vivre to be lovely, acceptable, and basically normal.

My dear mother birthed me into that wide-open, waking-up-from-the-sixties world. I still want to live in it. The seventies’ “vibe:” when people basically gave each other the benefit of the doubt.

These days there’s too much pressure.

* Aloysius was Lord Sebastian Flyte’s beloved teddy bear.

Non-Persons

The poor widow. She attracted no attention. But the Lord Jesus did not consider her a non-person. He measured her not by her wealth, nor by the extent of her entourage, nor by her influence over the affairs of this world. He measured her by the only criterion that ultimately matters: by the sincerity of her love for God and neighbor. [Spanish]

Every human being is a person: someone who can love and do good and become a heroic saint. A Christian has to see all people this way, penetrating beyond the outer veil of worldly considerations and finding the truth that will last beyond the grave.

What makes abortion so scandalously evil? It treats the unborn child as a non-person. What makes racism and xenophobia so scandalously evil? The immigrant, the non-English-speaker, the desperate refugee: non-person. What’s so horribly scandalous about an angry menace going into a synagogue, or a church, or a mall, or a dancehall–and shooting indiscriminately? The shooter thinks of these people as non-persons.

Tonight we mark the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in Germany, the beginning of the Holocaust. Why is the Holocaust such a shameful stain on the history of humanity? Because the Nazis regarded the Jews as non-persons.

Now, this next step will prove painful and difficult for us to get through. But we have to. What is the unending Catholic Clergy Sex-Abuse Scandal about? Isn’t it fundamentally about the systematic treatment of particular vulnerable human beings as non-persons?

Last February a brave man in Buffalo, New York, publicly denounced a priest who had abused him decades earlier, but who had never faced public justice. And just last week, we learned that a man in New York City had summoned the clarity and courage to accuse a bishop of the same.

In both these cases–as in so, so, so many others–the abusing priests treated these teenage boys as non-persons. Instead of respecting the child of God–with a conscience, with ambitions and dreams for the future; instead of seeing this person, the abusing clergyman saw only a prop for use in his own desperate, twisted escapade; he saw an implement for satisfying his own evil appetites.

Now, this kind of abuse would scandalize us plenty, in and of itself. But the abusers were not the only ones who treated these young men (and, in about 20% of the cases, young women) as non-persons. So did the entire authority structure of the Church. For decades.

Over the past nine months, many secret Church records have finally come to light. What do they show? –The records that will continue to come out, as investigations all over the country run their course: What will they show?

That the Church as an institution has not respected sex-abuse victims as persons. The abusers saw them only as props for pleasure. And way too often, the bishops saw them only as public nuisances and legal liabilities.

Now, in this fallen world of ours, we have to face the sad fact: people treat each other as non-persons all the time. We disrespect each other, use each other. That’s what sinning against your neighbor usually involves.

But when we sinners realize that we have done this, we’re sorry. We apologize. We try to heal the harm done. We heal disrespect, de-humanization, non-personhood. With respect, humane treatment, personal attention.

And as common as it may be for us sinners to treat each other as non-persons, that doesn’t change this fact: Whenever a Christian clergyman treats a fellow human being as a non-person, it does deep damage. It compromises the integrity of the one institution that Jesus Christ founded to propagate His Gospel. The Gospel of the personal dignity of every human being. The Gospel of Almighty God’s fatherly love.

The soul-crushing fact of the Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal is this: whistleblowers and Attorneys General have pulled back the curtain to reveal the “wizard.” And we see that the whole authority structure of the Church has treated sex-abuse victims as non-persons. Consistently, for decades, despite numerous promises to the contrary.

Bishops here and there have actually done heroically beautiful things to try to deal with this problem. But the hierarchy of the Church, considered as a whole, has shown no real interest in truly redressing the wrong done. Instead, over and over again, the same question has dominated the minds of bishops, Cardinals, popes: Quick! What rug can we sweep this under?

Now, that begs the question. What would real redress for sexual abuse involve? Tough question to answer. Except: There is always one expert who knows. Namely, the person who suffered the abuse.

What will make things right for you? What could restore your faith in God, and His Church? What can heal your soul? What will make it possible for you to turn a corner?

The person who has suffered has the one right answer. No ‘policy’ will ever solve this scandal, because every case involves specific human beings. The Scandal will end when the pope and the bishops ask the victims these questions personally–in each and every case–and actually listen to the answers.

PS. This: To the Bishops Before Their General Assembly

Lateran V

Giles of Viterbo
Giles of Viterbo

Ever seen the Sistine Chapel? Michelangelo painted the ceiling, and the wall behind the altar. Do the paintings communicate a message? A grim one? A hopeful one?

The ceiling gives us our past. The creation, the prophets. And behind the altar: What we will ultimately face. Judgment by Jesus. Not grim; not dark. Luminous and splendid.

Michelangelo had a “theological consultant.” Martin Luther’s ecclesiastical superior, the head of the Augustinian order. Giles of Viterbo.

Michelangelo painted. Meanwhile, on the other side of Rome, an ecumenical Council began in the Lateran Basilica.

A group of Cardinals had met a few years before, and had “suspended” Pope Julius II. Like the principal suspending a delinquent student. Though, in this case, the Cardinals had no authority to “suspend” the pope.

But they did have reason. At his election to the See of Peter, Julius had sworn, under oath, to convene an ecumenical Council to address the degradation of the Church. And Julius took his time doing it. He preferred to fight wars. Literally. He practically abandoned the sacred functions of his office and fought in the battlefield instead.

Pope Julius finally fulfilled his promise, in 1512. And Giles of Viterbo gave the Council’s opening address.

The sacred things of our religion: it is not for us to change them, the preacher declared. We must let them change us.

Giles warned the assembled bishops and the pope that Christianity stood on the brink of utter collapse, because the Church had all but lost Her connection with the sources of Her life. The sacred traditions coming from Christ. The life of prayer. The struggle against vice, especially against worldliness, avarice, and sexual impurity.

Giles did not spare the pope. Julius had focused on the wrong battles, Giles declared, expending himself on futile military enterprises. The real battle had to be fought in prayer.

But Giles hoped for a better day. With the pope and bishops meeting together in Council, they could focus on the Christian religion as they had received it–in the sacred texts and traditions. They could survive and thrive by uniting in the unchanging essentials.

…A lot of the drama sounds eerily familiar. Let’s have the same hope. It is not for anyone to change the sacred realities of our religion. It is for them to change us.

Servility and the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt Prodigal Son

Let’s see who really knows their Bible. The two little parables that we read from Luke 15 at today’s Holy Mass: they serve as a kind of introduction to a larger, super-famous parable…

Right! The Prodigal Son.

So, let’s consider the question: Must we submit to God? Like servants or slaves? Parable of the Prodigal Son answers the question, by showing us how the mercy of God works.

When the prodigal son decides to return to his father’s house, does the young man have ‘pure’ motives?

Hardly. He intends to return as a servant, because he knows that the servants in his father’s house have it better than he has it, at the pig farm. He returns to his father’s house out of self-interest. He’s hungry. He knows his father’s servants don’t go hungry.

But not petulant or proud self-interest. Practical and realistic self-interest. He prepares himself to make a humble and genuine apology to his father for the wrongs he has done him.

It’s not like the prodigal son didn’t love his father. Even in the throes of his sinful passions, he loved him all along. He always took the goodness and kindness of his father for granted, as a given. He always loved the humane man. Life at the pig farm provided him with a contrast to gracious way his father ran his own household.

So the son always loved. But even as he approached his father’s house, the son still did not fully understand his father’s enormous generosity and kindness. He loved it and admired it, but didn’t understand it.

So the father truly took the son by surprise. When the old man would not even pause to hear the son’s full apology. And when the father would not remotely countenance the idea of the son entering the house as a servant. My son, a servant in my own home? No way, Jose. My son wears a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and a beautiful robe. Slaughter the fatted calf!

God knows nothing of slavish submission. He knows only pure freedom.

But for us to get there—for us to learn what pure freedom even is—we must humbly submit first. We must follow God’s law out of pure obedience.

And out of self-interest. Because a life of blind obedience to God beats the alternative.

Journalists and Bishops

Before Buffalo diocese whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor spoke on 60 Minutes, she worked extensively with Charlie Specht. The man has given our Church a tremendous gift of dogged truth-telling.

One important point Specht makes, which diligent readers here have heard me make before:

Beware a bishop who says, ‘We’ve had no claims of abuses occurring since Dallas in 2002! Look how great we are!’

Minors rarely, rarely report abuse at the time. It usually takes decades for the Gospel of You-Didn’t-Deserve-to-be-Treated-that-Way-and-You-Deserve-Justice to penetrate the huge edifice of manipulative lies that the abuser constructed in the victim’s mind.

A reasonable bishop would admit that some Catholic official in his diocese is probably building just such an edifice of lies right now. But: “When I learn about it, I will kick that manipulative bas-d’s a-s myself!” Or something along those lines.

…As the PA Grand Jury pointed out in their August report, one particular institution brought about the reforms which the bishops enacted in 2002. That institution is The Boston Globe.

Not sure if the Globe intentionally chose the feastday of 16th-century reforming hero St. Charles Borromeo. But they nonetheless published a magnum opus this past Sunday.

Their report demonstrates the hollowness of the bishops’ actions of 2002. This time the Globe co-operated with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and both newspapers published the same article simultaneously. It is long, detailed, and devastating.

(You and I, dear reader, have registered the hollowness of the ‘reforms’ of 2002 for months now, of course. Since the King of the 2002 “Reform” was… Theodore Edgar McCarrick.)

The best line quoted in the report comes from a sex-abuse victim of former Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart. Hart’s successor made a trip to New York to apologize personally. The anonymous victim told the Globe/Inquirer:

I remember thinking, ‘What the f— am I going to do with an apology?’ And then you realize it actually means a lot–to be believed.

…Three bishops have responded to the Globe/Inquirer report. 1. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput published a pointlessly tendentious and defensive op-ed in the same edition of the Inquirer. 2. Newark Archbishop Joseph Cardinal Tobin wrote a letter to his people. In which he could only manage to refer blandly to “the resignation” of Theodore McCarrick. 3. Sean Card. O’Malley of Boston expressed to the Globe his disappointment that evil still exists in the world.

Brothers: This is not going to work. I mean: Euphemisms. Defensiveness. Invoking 2002. Crocodile tears and words and blah blah blah blah.

We’re praying for a miracle in Baltimore. To be honest, I think the beautiful miracle might wind up looking ugly, at least on the surface. That is: open disagreements and recriminations.

Holley yelling at Wuerl and Wuerl yelling at Holley. Dolan yelling at Malone and Malone yelling at Dolan. Tobin yelling at Chaput. Kurtz yelling at Holley. Holley yelling at DiNardo. O’Malley and Cupich cowering behind the coffee urns, as the fur flies.

Bring it on. We need to break this thing wide open.

Bring in Charlie Specht from Buffalo, and give him a microphone. Bring in McCarrick’s victim James–from Michael Voris’ nearby rally–and give him the microphone.

We don’t need bella figura. We need hard-nosed journalist types who get in your face to learn the truth.

Click HERE for a pretty reasonable satire about the choice we American Christians face in the voting booth today.

They Need a Miracle…

plenary-council-plaque
Stone tablet commemorating the Third Provincial Council of the US bishops in Baltimore

…when they meet in Baltimore next week. The bishops of the US.

We American Catholics received a little miracle at a bishops’ meeting in Baltimore once before. The Third Provincial Council of Baltimore gave us the Baltimore Catechism.

This year we need a bigger one.

A breakthrough. A triumph of Christian humility and prudence. A faith-restoring renunciation of all the defensive, self-pitying nonsense, of all the bureaucratic argle-bargle, of all the lawyering and pointless, counterproductive p.r.’ing.

A miracle: That they would say and do what Men of God under these circumstances would say and do. Not jockeying for position among themselves. Not thinking of what anyone else might think or say. No self-importance. No passive voice. No slogans. No gestures.

Just a humble reckoning with actual facts. Careful study. Fatherliness.

…Like I said: we have to pray for a major miracle here. So I have studied the best way to pray for these brothers. And my method is to pray for them by ecclesiastical province.

US_Roman_Catholic_dioceses provinces map
Handy map of all the US dioceses, colored according to province

There are too many dioceses–and way too many individual bishops–to keep in your mind. But not too many provinces. (An ecclesiastical province is an Archbishopric with its associated bishoprics.)

I haven’t participated in a Mass in absolutely every US ecclesiastical province, in my little life. But I have memories of most of them: friends’ ordinations in the provinces of Indiana, New Jersey, GA-NC-SC, Illinois, Louisiana, Iowa; Masses on various trips in the provinces of east and west Texas, southern California (and northern CA-NV-UT), Pennsylvania, Missouri, AZ-NM, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, CO-WY; weddings in CT-RI, OK-AR, New York.

Let’s pray, dear reader. For another Baltimore miracle. For some kind of genuinely heartening new beginning. Let’s pray for our bishops. I humbly suggest praying for them by province. But you choose your own preferred way. Just pray.

Yes, it will take a miracle for the total institutional free-fall of summer-fall 2018 to end in Baltimore next week. A miracle unlike any we’ve seen in these parts, in a long, long time.

But some unforeseen, beautiful thing could conceivably happen. Something that said to your honest Catholic, kneeling in the pew and trying to hold on: Yes, we can start fresh. We can actually begin building again, building an institution worth trusting.

Yes, that would be a major miracle. But we believe in miracles. So let’s pray for one.

The Call of God

Alaska on the lower 48

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Mark 12:30)

Anyone ever read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer? A true story. Sean Penn made a move out of it. [Spanish]

In 1990 a young northern-Virginia man wandered west, into the wilderness, trying to unravel the mystery of life. He had nothing, lived on what came his way, experienced the enchantment of the earth’s beauty—as if every day could be the last. He shared a little bit of the total freedom of St. Francis.

This young man also thoughtlessly left his family behind—his parents, his beloved sister; his friends. He underwent a complete separation from all the ties that bound him. In order to find…? The truth. God.

The story utterly captivates me because Chris McCandless and I have so much in common. Born around the same time; grew up within twenty miles of each other; got good grades and ran cross-country in high-school.

And both of us did our share of hitchhiking around America in the years 1988-1992. In those days, not a lot of people thumbed it, like they had back in the 50’s and 60’s. So it was a little risky. That said, I suppose it’s a lot harder to get rides now than it was thirty years ago.

God. He’s everywhere. All the time. Silently omnipotent. Inscrutably immediate. What else could possibly matter, besides God? He calls. How could any of us truly be himself or herself without trying to listen, to follow, to find Him? Without abandoning everything for Him?

Everything comes from Him, and everything tends toward Him. He fashioned everything and governs all. Some fatalistic pagans think the whole cosmos and our lives are just a meaningless game that God plays. But that’s not fair—to us. We have a serious purpose. Vocational discernment is no meaningless farce. Each of us exists for a reason, and each of us must find that reason—or risk losing our very selves.

Into the Wild movie

Anyone have a wall map of the US? With a separate map of Alaska tucked into one corner? (Hawaii in the other corner.) Anyone ever bothered to compare the scales of the continental US map versus the Alaska map? You know: one inch = a hundred miles, or two hundred.

Anyway, on my wall map, the scale for Alaska is double the scale for the lower forty-eight. Alaska ain’t no chicken-scratch Canadian backyard. Texas, California, and Montana, spread out next to each other, could all fit inside Alaska. Alaska is 9/10th the size of Mexico.

At age 22, Chris McCandless hitchhiked, worked odd jobs, got to know people from all different walks of life—then wound up in solitude in the northern reaches of the Denali Nature Preserve in the Alaska interior.

Certainly a lot of us can relate to some of that. The business of coming of age, exploring the world, figuring out who you are. At age 22, I, too hitch-hiked, worked odd jobs, got to know people from all walks of life. But I didn’t wind up in Alaska. I’ve never been to Alaska. I wound up in RCIA.

The crucifix was my Alaska. A crucifix doesn’t encompass the size of California, Texas, and Montana combined. Rather, it’s the size of a single human being. Same size as all of us.

Yet the crucifix unites heaven and earth, eternity and time. It unites solitude and solidarity. Alaska is a lonely place—seems like one, anyway. But the Christian Church? No, not lonely. The crucifix unites God and man. Jesus Christ has united all of this—the whole cosmos He made—in love.

Finding God’s will. You have to follow the rules. Pray, go to Mass, obey the Commandments. But then your calling comes as a pure gift. At 22, by the pure grace of God, I knew He was calling me to become a priest. I knew that without any doubt. Though to this day I still can’t say that I fully know what a priest even is.

I know a priest lives from Jesus and for Jesus. Like everyone. Every human being who has ever lived and died, or who will ever live and die—all live from Jesus and for Jesus.

Jesus had a vocation: to live from the Father and for the Father. Jesus of Nazareth consummated human life as religion. When I was 22 my friends told me I was ‘strangely religious.’ By the time I joined the Church and then went to the seminary, they gave up on me as a fanatic, a madman.

But what else is there? Jesus wasn’t “too religious.” He lived a pilgrim life in which every single breath communicated eternal love. He lived His whole life on earth as one big crucifix of union with the Father.

Chris McCandless didn’t make it. He neglected to consider that Alaskan rivers swell a lot in the summer, as some of the snowpack melts off. He couldn’t make it back the way he had come; he ran out of provisions. He breathed his last six months before his 25th birthday. May he rest in peace. There’s a little, kind-of shrine to him, in Healy, Alaska. A few hundred people visit every summer.

At the exact same time—when McCandless was running out of food and strength—I met with a Catholic priest for the first time in my life and started to learn the Catholic faith and get ready to enter the Church. To God be the glory.