The Book We Desperately Need Jon Krakauer to Write

McCarrick and James
Theodore McCarrick and James Grein

 

All the following people have something in common.

 

Mr. James Grein

former priest Gregory Littleton

former priest Robert Ciolek

confidential secretaries who worked for Bishop Edward Hughes of Metuchen, New Jersey, who died in 2013 (He succeeded McCarrick in office.)

secretaries and assistants who worked with Msgr. Michael Alliegro of the diocese of Metuchen, who died in 2009

the confidential secretary who typed then-Archbishop of New York John Card. O’Connor‘s 1999 letter to Pope John Paul II, about Theodore McCarrick (O’Connor died the following year; John Paul II died in 2005)

Stanisław Card. Dziwisz, who likely opened O’Connor’s letter, and all the secretaries who worked with him

all the lawyers, private advisors, and confidential secretaries who worked for Bishop Vincent dePaul Breen, Hughes’ successor as bishop of Metuchen, who died in 2003

Bishop Paul Bootkoski, emeritus of Metuchen, Breen’s successor

all the lawyers, private advisors, and confidential secretaries who worked with Bootkoski

John Myers, Archbishop-emeritus of Newark, NJ (McCarrick’s successor in office there)

the members of the Pittsburgh diocesan Review Board, which met in November 2004, and heard Robert Ciolek’s claims about McCarrick

the lawyers who arranged for the settlement payments to Ciolek and Littleton

Father Boniface Ramsey, former professor at the seminary at Seton Hall University in Newark

the confidential secretaries of Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Apostolic Nuncio to the USA, who would have opened the dossier Bishop Bootkoski sent to the nunciature on December 6, 2005 (Montalvo died in 2006)

Pope Benedict XVI

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary to Benedict XVI

Pope Francis

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (the Vatican whistleblower)

the confidential secretaries who have worked in the Roman offices of the previous and current Cardinal Prefects for the Congregation of Bishops (Giovanni Battista Re and Marc Oullet) and Cardinal Secretaries of State (Tarcisio Bertone and Pietro Parolin)

confidential secretaries, advisors, and lawyers who worked with Theodore McCarrick during his various tenures

Mr. Theodore McCarrick

 

All these people had a part in “The McCarrick Affair”–the long-term cover-up of his sexual abuses, which has left the Church in this region in a death spiral. They all likely have strained consciences over this.

Which means: We can safely imagine that many of them would talk to a skilled journalist, one without a Church-politics ax to grind. They would tell their stories to someone who could put the whole business together into a unified, fair account.

jon krakauer
Jon Krakauer

All of these people also likely know others who know things–things about which the public as yet knows nothing.

We need a straightforward narrative, sir.

The English-speaking world’s access to facts has suffered because Andrea Tornielli’s Il Giorno del Giudizio has not appeared in our language. Yes, Tornielli undertook a blatantly biased attempt to discredit Archbishop Vigano. But the book nonetheless contains a great deal of solid information.

The Vatican brass talked to Tornielli, thinking that he would put together a book defending them from Vigano’s charge that they conspired in a cover-up.

But these men have long grown accustomed to having people think as they order them to think. They completely misunderstood what they were doing. They revealed to the Italian-speaking world many previously unknown details about: The cover-up that they had in fact conducted.

Please, Mr. Krakauer! Tackle this project!

If you need a $100,000 or $150,000 book-grant to get started–perhaps to hire an Italian translator, if you don’t know the language yourself–I will find the money. No problem.

Please.

[Click here for links, if you want more background information.]

 

 

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Trust: Philip Roth, Donald Trump, James Grein

Roth Plot Against AmericaHistory buffs: Imagine that Franklin Delano Roosevelt only served two terms. Then Charles Lindbergh became president.

Yes, the Missourian aviator after whom a highway and a high school in St. Louis are named. Who addressed an “America First” rally a year after Hitler had marched into Poland. He insisted that the USA must stay out out of the war. “British and Jewish interests seek war, ” Lindbergh argued. But America’s “tolerance” for Jews will “not survive” such a war.

Lindbergh really said that. Two months before Pearl Harbor brought to an end any debate about the US entering the war, and the “America First” movement disbanded.

Lindbergh never actually became president. But Philip Roth gives us an imaginary 1940-1942 USA, in which Lindbergh did. In this novel, the USA allies itself with Hitler. A nine-year-old Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, tells the story.

Little Philip rides city buses with a wild school chum, discovering strange non-Jewish neighborhoods. He worships his older brother Sandy and his orphaned cousin Alvin. The family listens every Sunday night to the radio broadcasts of anti-Nazi journalist Walter Winchell, like all their neighbors do.

Philip’s social-climbing aunt marries a prominent Newark rabbi, who had shocked most of Newark’s Jews by aligning himself with the Lindbergh administration. Sandy goes to live on a Kentucky farm for a summer, as part of a program to “mainstream” the Jews–over his father’s strenuous objections. Alvin joins the Canadian army, determined actually to fight Hitler. He loses a leg.

Early in the novel, the family takes a vacation in Washington, D.C., leading to a stark contrast: Philip’s father rhapsodizes about the Lincoln Memorial, then he encounters hostility at a local cafeteria–for talking while Jewish.

Roth manages the nine-year-old-boy point-of-view with masterly brilliance. Little Philip collects stamps, worries about when and where people will get to go to the bathroom, dislikes a neighbor boy for being a clingy drip, and feels guilty for bad things that grown-ups have done.

Above all, he has a heroically devoted mother. Her calm clarity, under extreme pressure, produces a scene that brought tears to my eyes. Worth reading the whole novel just to get to it.

Roth sets the USA’s devolution into anti-Semitic violence in Kentucky. I, for one, do not think that, as a state, Kentucky deserves that.

But let’s leave that quibble aside. Roth moves the story to its conclusion by changing narrative style in mid-stream. From his calm narration of neighborhood and home events, he suddenly shifts his cadence to a rapid-fire, newspaper-like recounting of catastrophe.

Little Philip finds himself surrounded by adults who do not know whom to trust for reliable information. Meanwhile: martial law, riots.

The final chapters reverberate with the sense: What is going on? What is really happening? Whom can we believe?

…Which brings us to: President Trump’s claim that we have a state of emergency at our border with Mexico.

Now: If the man had shut down the federal government in order to protect the innocent and defenseless unborn child, I would cheer. If he had declared: Congress can count on me to veto every appropriations bill. Until we, as a nation, acknowledge that every procured abortion involves the taking of a human life!

You can be sure that I would be leading the rosary at a prayer rally supporting the president right now, if that was the situation we faced.

But it is not.

President Trump has brought us to the brink of the state that Roth evokes in his novel, in his imaginary 1942. America, untethered from facts. America in a haze.

Trump has chosen this hill to die on: A wall, technologically incapable of succeeding at its appointed task, enormously bothersome to neighboring men and beasts, erected for the sake of keeping at bay an enemy that does not exist.

…We also live in Roth’s 1942 USA in the Catholic Church. With no one to trust.

Vatican insiders supposedly say:

Pope Francis will laicize Theodore McCarrick through an abbreviated penal process, before next month’s sex-abuse meeting. The overwhelming evidence against him, compiled by Church investigators, makes a full trial unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the only accuser known to the public gives two ninety-minute interviews on a supposedly reliable Catholic podcast.

He accuses McCarrick not just of specific acts of sexual abuse, but of willfully and maliciously participating in a century-old conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church. The conspiracy supposedly emanates from an otherwise unremarkable Swiss city. It involves bribes given by Italian-American businessmen and taken by popes for decades.

(In other words, Dr. Taylor Marshall has given James Grein a platform. But he has not done him any favors. Because 90% of James’ two interviews, conducted by Dr. Marshall, consist of incoherent nonsense.)

Meanwhile, the Vatican officially says: No Comment.

…I feel like little Philip. Don’t know whom or what to believe.

Vatican Spills the McCarrick Beans, Part II

Tornielli Giorno Giudizio

Anyone watching the work of the American bishops meeting in Baltimore three weeks ago knows that they voted on this:

Be it resolved that the bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops encourage the Holy See to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with the canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.

The bishops voted that resolution down.

Meanwhile, laughter in Rome. Why? Because Rome had already released all the info. By talking secretly to two journalists. The book was published November 6.

“Don’t these silly Americans understand how we do things here?” the Roman cardinali thought to themselves. (Among the Roman cardinali, I include Donald Wuerl, certainly one of Tornielli & Valente’s anonymous sources.)

Meanwhile, we American men wonder: Really? Talking off the record to a sympathetic journalist counts as “accountability?”

Anyway, click Part One of my summary of the book, if you haven’t read it already. We continue now with:

Facts about Theodore McCarrick revealed by the unwitting accountability team of Vigano-Tornielli-Valente…

In December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI knew that McCarrick had abused seminarians.

McCarrick turned 75 in July, 2005, still healthy and energetic. I remember it as if it were yesterday; all us Washington priests had to attend a 75th birthday party held in a fancy new dining hall at Georgetown University.

Even though canon law requires the resignation of all bishops at 75, sitting Cardinal Archbishops generally serve at least two extra years, if not four or five.

But McCarrick did not. Having concluded that McCarrick posed a grave danger to the good name of Holy Mother Church, Pope Benedict rushed the replacement process, hastily naming Donald Wuerl as McCarrick’s successor. Well before McCarrick turned 76.

crozier wuerl

Meanwhile: two things…

1. Everyone knew that Pope Benedict was embarrassing Theodore McCarrick. But we all thought it had to with a fast one that McCarrick had pulled on then-Card. Ratzinger in 2004. Ratzinger had explained that priests could and should withhold Holy Communion from politicians who voted in favor of abortion. McCarrick did not communicate that instruction to his brother American bishops.

We priests in the trenches thought McCarrick got relieved early because of that. Little did we know…

2. The second settlement of an abuse claim against McCarrick ran its course during 2006. Rome got the word.

Vigano wrote about “sanctions” against McCarrick. Vigano supposed that the sanctions began in 2009, after Dr. Richard Sipe published selections from the McCarrick abuse-claim settlement documents.

But the ‘sanctions’ actually began in December of 2006.

Vigano wrote that Pope Francis “lifted” them in 2013.

He did not. Because they had never been enforced at all.

The history recounted in this book–of nuncios and cardinals trying to enforce Pope Benedict XVI’s order that Theodore McCarrick live a retired life of prayer and penance–it reads like the slapstick farce that it was. McCarrick outmaneuvered them all.

Tornielli and Valente document it, in excruciating detail. They propose to contradict Vigano, insisting that Vigano painted an inaccurate picture of a McCarrick effectively punished by Benedict XVI, then liberated by Francis.

But: I don’t remember Vigano insisting that Benedict’s sanctions were effective. As Tornielli and Valente point out, Vigano himself proved utterly inadequate to the task of enforcing them.

Tornielli and Valente try to cast doubt on Vigano’s utterly crucial assertion that he told Pope Francis about McCarrick’s abuses in June of 2013. But Card. Ouellet, prefect of Bishops, has already acknowledged that Vigano probably did tell the pope about McCarrick. (Oullet preposterously claimed that we could hardly expect the pope to focus on such information).

And even if Vigano never told Pope Franis anything about McCarrick, Tornielli and Valente effectively inform us that they all knew anyway–all the Cardinals around the pope. Pope Francis didn’t need Vigano to tell him that McCarrick was a ticking time bomb of scandal that could explode and destroy them all. The pope already knew. He just did not appear to care.

McCarrick sofa

The picture from this hit-piece book against Vigano is manifestly not: Vigano wrong. The picture that emerges is: The people who run our church really, really do not know what they are doing.

I will likely have more to tell you about what I have read, dear reader, but let me close now with:

My Analysis

In 1994, Bishop Hughes of Metuchen, NJ, could have insisted on a church trial of his predecessor, even though that predecessor was his ecclesiastical superior. Trials are ugly, but they do attain the kind of certitude that we can have in this life, about an accused man’s guilt or innocence.

It would have taken a great deal of courage for Hughes to denounce the Archbishop of his province. But the alternative was: Slip into the shadow world of the mafiosi

In 1999, Cardinal O’Connor could have insisted on a trial of Theodore McCarrick, for violations of the Sixth Commandment with his own seminarians. But he did not. O’Connor wasn’t hung up about guilt or innocence, either; he only cared about whether or not McCarrick got promoted.

(Even the good guys among the mafiosi are still mafiosi, my friends. O’Connor was convinced that McCarrick had preyed on defenseless young men. But still O’Connor never suggested that McCarrick had no business remaining in the throne in Newark–and had no business saying Mass at all.)

John Paul II could have, and should have, conducted a trial. But he preferred to think the best about the charming snake-oil salesman.

Benedict XVI absolutely had to conduct a trial. But he did not do so. He assumed McCarrick was guilty. Meanwhile, McCarrick regarded Benedict’s attempts to closet him in a monastery as a “persecution.” Because McCarrick denies to this day that he did anything wrong.

There’s no getting around this: Pope Benedict XVI is guilty of covering up for Theodore McCarrick. The pope worried about scandal. He did not appear to understand that McCarrick’s victims needed justice. Nor did he understand that more victims would surely come forward.

But we can well imagine that Benedict is suffering his punishment right now. He himself made the choice that leaves him in the impossibly painful position that he now occupies. He knows everything about all this. He knows he made a terrible mistake, out of weakness of will.

And he can say nothing. He has information that could help resolve the problem–The Problem, that he knows has released termites into the very foundations of the Church. But he cannot say anything. Because of the choice that he himself made, to live as the “contemplative ex-pope.”

Pope Francis inherited a nightmare situation in which one of his Cardinals (an unusually prominent one) stood accused of grave abuses. But his guilt had never been proved; it had never even been put on trial, by anyone.

Pope Francis absolutely, positively had to conduct a trial, to establish McCarrick’s guilt definitively and remove him from the clerical state.

Instead, Pope Francis blew the whole thing off completely.

Until a man came forward accusing McCarrick of abusing him while he was still a minor. And this apocalypse we have lived through, and continue to live through, began.

The Chief Mafiosi Speak About McCarrick (Off the Record, of Course)–Part I

Il Giorno del Giudizio (The Day of Judgment) by Andrea Tornielli and Gianni Valente

Dear reader, your unworthy servant reads the Italian. So I can inform you of what this book says. They published it in Italy a month ago, and it says a lot:

Tornielli Giorno Giudizio

Two Vatican journalists, intent on making Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano look bad, obtained access to some very knowledgeable churchmen. The churchmen talked.

First: Thedore-McCarrick-related facts, heretofore unknown to the public, which we learn in the first four chapters of this book

1. The Vatican began to look for a replacement for James Card. Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, in early 1999.

John Card. O’Connor, then-Archbishop of New York, had heard about McCarrick abusing seminarians. He wrote to Rome, warning Pope John Paul II that choosing the incumbent of Newark for Washington would lead to a colossal scandal: “The American clergy will become divided, and the reputation of the hierarchy will suffer, with mud on the Church.”

(Yes: prophetic.)

Tornielli and Valente include the reason why O’Connor knew. The priest who eventually received a settlement payment in 2004 had complained to Bishop Edward Hughes, McCarrick’s successor in the diocese of Metuchen, NJ, about McCarrick’s abuse. He complained about it in 1994.

In his August testimony, Archbishop Vigano painted a picture of an enfeebled John Paul II who wasn’t really in the decision-making loop in AD 2000. Tornielli and Valente successfully undermine that picture. I myself had the privilege of meeting the pope in the year 2000; he was somewhat enfeebled. Out-of-it? No way.

Cardinal O’Connor’s letter led to a yearlong delay in choosing a successor for Washington. During that year, Cardinal O’Connor died. Meanwhile, McCarrick wrote Rome, denying the accusations against him.

John Paul II believed the man who had spoken Polish to him, and to Bill Clinton, in Newark in 1995.

john paul ii theodore mccarrick newark 1995
Pope St. John Paul II and Theodore McCarrick, Newark, 1995

[Would like to pause here for one moment, dear, attentive reader.

Discussion of McCarrick’s career tends to focus on his ‘promotion’ to Washington in 2000. But this obscures an important fact: sitting in the episcopal throne of the Archdiocese of Newark, while less prestigious, actually involves shepherding a lot more people. And Newark, unlike Washington, has multiple suffragan sees. Washington barely qualifies as an archdiocese; it has only one very-small suffragan see.

What if McCarrick had not become the Archbishop of Washington? He would not have ascended to the College of Cardinals. But his depredations would still have wounded the faith of thousands upon thousands of Catholics. And hundreds of priests.

Archbishop Vigano, and Tornielli and Valente, have given us a lot of information about events in Rome and Washington since 1999. But we can’t forget: the story of Theodore McCarrick is fundamentally the story of a New-York priest who became a bishop and archbishop in New Jersey. And apparently did quite a few terrible things. Which got covered-up, even before his name appeared on anyone’s list of candidates for Archbishop of Washington in 1999.

McCarrick’s abuses would demand a serious reckoning–of who knew what, and when–even if the ball had bounced a different way for Washington in the year 2000.

Anyway, back to the facts revealed in the book…]

2. In the process of trying to make Vigano look dishonest, Tornielli and Valente make him look fundamentally honest. Their sources corroborate all of these assertions:

On the day after the Vatican announced the pope’s choice for Washington, a former seminary professor in Newark wrote to the Holy See, at the insistence of the then-nuncio to the US, Gabriel Montalvo. The professor re-iterated O’Connor’s charges against McCarrick. (O’Connor’s prior letter explains why Montalvo already knew something about it.)

Tornielli and Valente have a lovely paragraph outlining their presumption (which I believe accurate) that McCarrick ceased his depredations upon arriving in Washington:

The diocese doesn’t have a beach house to which he could invite seminarians. And seeing how close he was to the marble halls of the federal institutions, to the Congress and the President of the USA, McCarrick knew that, with so many eyes focused on him, he had to be much more careful.

In December 2005, the sitting Bishop of Metuchen, NJ, Paul Bootkoski, reported to the Apostolic See this fact: his diocese had secretly settled claims of abuse against McCarrick made the previous year.

(In the meantime, McCarrick had participated in the Sistine-chapel conclave held after the death of JP II.)

At this point, the authors’ sources tell them: Bootkoski, Montalvo (the nuncio), and the officials of the Roman dicasteries all acknowledge the fundamental fact. This problem now sits squarely on the desk of the new pope, Benedict XVI. Only the Holy Father can judge and sentence a Cardinal of the Roman Church…

[Much more to come over the next few days, my dear ones. Click here for PART TWO.]

Final Jeopardy! and a New Beginning

A liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the Sunday closest to the feast of this ‘first apostle.’

Final Jeopardy question yesterday evening. In the category of “Catholicism.”

None of the contestants got the correct answer. It was a hard question. For two years I served as pastor of St. Andrew’s parish in Roanoke, and I can confidently say: only about 10% of the parishioners of St. Andrew’s would have known that the correct answer is St. Andrew.

We call Andrew the ‘first’ because he recruited his brother… Right: St. Peter. We call them all ‘apostles’ because: St. Andrew, along with everyone else in the upper room on Easter Sunday, saw Jesus after He had risen from the dead.

We could say a lot more. Each of us baptized Christians exercises the ‘apostolic ministry’ in some way. So there is certainly a great deal to say about it.

But let’s start here: The original Apostles saw Jesus. Risen from the dead. They saw Him multiple times, over the course of forty days. The “New Testament:” the original Apostles testimony that they saw Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead, with their own eyes. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church believes that testimony.

missale-romanum-white-bgNow, speaking of resurrection: Alex Trebek reminded me. St. Andrew Day means: it’s time to flip back to the beginning of the book. The Missal. The Lectionary. The Breviary.

We start again. We cannot overstate the spiritual significance of the liturgical year. It organizes the Sacred Scriptures for us. It unfolds the mysteries of the Savior’s life. It consecrates the months and seasons. It redeems time, draws daily earthly life up into eternal heavenly life.

It doesn’t get old, the business that begins anew every year on the First Sunday of Advent. We flip the ribbons back; we start fresh. The world outside gets older. But the Sacred Liturgy of the Church offers us, quite literally, a heavenly Fountain of Youth.

Was this past liturgical year the worst in the history of Jesus’ Church? From my limited vantage point on the unfolding of events, I would say: Absolutely.

Will the year to come actually bring even worse? No doubt. We’d be fools to imagine otherwise. Our ‘leaders’ have given us nothing upon which to base any optimism. To the contrary, their heartbreaking ineptitude has all but ground us down in to despair.

I still stand by the suggestion I floated in August. Namely, that the whole lot of them, from the pope on down, resign. And we fill their places in the hierarchy by a lottery that chooses parish priests from around the world at random. But, Father! That might result in an incompetent hierarchy! Well…

All that said: A new year of saving grace dawns for us Catholics anyway. The holy Church can still light the candles of Advent. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, still reigns in heaven. And He continues to sanctify His people through the annual celebration of the unfathomable mysteries of His pilgrim life.

The Lincoln Memorial of the Church

Roth Plot Against AmericaPhilip Roth wrote a novel about what would have happened if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not won re-election in 1940. The Plot Against America imagines that Charles Lindbergh became president that year instead.

Lindbergh then makes a peace pact with Hitler, instead of committing to the alliance against him. American Jews begin to experience terrifying anti-Semitism, like the Jews in Europe.

The novel centers on one New-Jersey Jewish family.

In an early chapter, they take a family vacation to see the sights of Washington, D.C. They visit the Lincoln Memorial. Dad insists that his two sons carefully read the Gettysburg address, which is chiseled into the marble wall. “All men are created equal.”

Then they return to their hotel and discover that the manager has evicted them from their room. A clerk had mistakenly allowed them to check in. Jews are not allowed.

The fictional father interprets the situation to his sons: We are proud Americans. We love America. America has her ideals, and we cherish them. But the incumbent President of America betrays America by betraying her ideals. What is America? We know by her ideals, which you can read on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Not by the current president.

An amazingly moving scene. [NB. Apparently they are working on a t.v. mini-series version of the novel.]

piusxii

…In 1953, Pope Pius XII made today, November 21, Pro Orantibus Day. He urged Catholics to pray and give thanks for all the cloistered nuns and monks, who spend their whole lives praying for us.

They pray for us. They also strive to live purely by our ideals. A life of contemplation of the truth that does not change.

My point is that Christian contemplatives are like the living Lincoln Memorial of our Church.

Of course the USA is a political reality, with a relatively short history and no divine guarantees. While the Church has not just ideals to live by, chiseled on a wall somewhere–but the living, breathing Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

During this period of time, however, we Catholics reasonably wonder if our current leaders have a grip on how to govern our Church according to her true ideals. So I think this analogy might help us.

No matter who holds office right now, the Catholic Church always has an indestructible, living Lincoln Memorial. The “vanishing center” of the Church. In their hidden chapels and simple cells, all they do is pray. And hope for heaven. And love God and everyone.

 

Steady March Through the Alaska of Books

gospelbook

Blessed are those who listen to this prophetic message and heed what is written in it. (Revelation 1:3)

From the beginning of the last book of the Holy Bible. St. John’s Revelation both begins and ends with exhortations about reading the sacred book. Exhortations that we can apply not just to this last book of the Bible, but to all of Scripture. St. John’s words echo Moses’ in the book of Deuteronomy. Carefully listen to, and heed, the Word of God. Change nothing.

How does St. John conclude the Bible?

I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes away from these words, God will take away his share in the tree of life and the holy city described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

The Church feeds on the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church listens to, and heeds, the words of Scripture. We know This Is Who We Are since: This is What a Mass Is.

The Catechism puts it like this: “The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as She venerates the Lord’s Body… In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.” (CCC 103-104)

Sounds lovely and sweet. But we cannot get sentimental and pollyannish about something as genuinely intimidating as the Holy Bible.

To Brave AlaskaYou know I recently read about one young man’s ill-fated solo adventure in Alaska. Then I went on a binge and watched multiple movies about people daring the Alaskan wilderness. And losing the dare every time. “Into the Wild.” “To Brave Alaska.” “Rugged Gold.”

The point of this movie genre is: Only a fool underestimates the challenges involved in surviving in the Alaska bush. And my point is: The Holy Bible is the Alaska of books. Only a fool underestimates the challenges. Only a fool ventures out alone, unguided and without provisions.

So we read together. According to an ancient, well-established plan. With guides. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

When we read the Scriptures in union with the Church—systematically, year after year, guided by experts—then we survive and thrive. Then we enter into the joy of seasoned explorers.

A week from Sunday, we begin anew. We Catholic Scripture-reading survivalists understand the Lectionary cycle. This year we have had B-2. Which means on the first Sunday of Advent, we begin…

Right, amigo. C-1.

A steady march through the beautiful bush. Blessed are those who listen to, and heed, the Word of God.

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.

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.

Fellow Gen-Xer Who Died Young

Chris McCandless People mag

You. Your books. Your thoughts. And the mountains, hills, bugs, grass, wild flowers, birds, creeks, rivers.

Chris McCandless finished college, then set out west. He longed for the solitudes of Alaska. He had made himself poor, like St. Francis and the Lord Jesus before him. Chris gave away all his money and abandoned the middle-class existence for which he had been carefully groomed.

He had a car, but soon he dispensed with that, too. He had no plan exactly, just a dream. He renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.

He rowed down the Colorado River to Mexico. He hitchhiked and hopped freight trains up and down California, then out to South Dakota. He made some friends who still have not forgotten him. He practiced celibacy. He worked the fields and grain elevators with a combine crew at harvest time. And at a northern-Arizona McDonald’s for seven months.

He chased his dream. Solitude in the Alaskan bush.

In April of 1992, he hiked out. He had thumbed his way to a trailhead north of Mount McKinley (aka Denali). He had provisioned himself. Minimally. By reading and practice, he had acquired no small amount of survival expertise.

He lived until August.

Before Chris succumbed to starvation, brought on by two mistakes he made, including eating seeds he should not have eaten, he wrote a farewell note: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all.”

Christopher-McCandless
final self-portrait

Award-winning writer Jon Krakauer became, by his own admission, “obsessed” with McCandless. Krakauer wrote the definitive account of these events, Into the Wild, published in 1996. Sean Penn made a movie version, released in 2007.

I can tell you that I will read everything Jon Krakauer has ever written and will ever write. Or I will die trying.

Into the Wild has everything it should. A meticulous reconstruction of events, narrated with soaring prose. Careful consideration of all the available botanical literature. The history of other cases of wild, youthful wandering, including Krakauer’s own. Above all: Into the Wild humbles itself before the mystery of this young man’s life and early death.

When it comes to final judgment about McCandless, you can go one of two ways. Sean Penn goes one way with his movie version: Alex Supertramp, the cult hero of Seattle grungers. He lived free. He died young, because his parents, and society, are evil.

Now, I love Eddie Vedder as much as the next guy. (He provides the heartbreaking, just-about-perfect movie soundtrack.) But Sean Penn’s take on what happened does not correspond with the actual facts. McCandless did not have vicious ogres for parents. Just your usual, run-of-the-mill, screwed-up type of people.

Krakauer portrays them much more honestly than Penn. And Krakauer writes about the peace a man can find when he realizes: my flawed father is a fellow human being, like me. He needs mercy, like me. Penn’s movie never gets there.

The other way you can go to judge McCandless: A selfish idiot who got what he deserved for tempting fate and Mother Nature. A son who did his parents very, very wrong. Who wronged all his loved ones, especially his sister. (She’s the most-beautiful character in the movie, giving Chris the benefit of the doubt at every turn.)

Most actual Alaskans–the people who know how to survive there–take this view: Chris McCandless, dumbass.

But Krakauer won’t dismiss the protagonist he calls “the boy” that way. Because it’s inaccurate.

Mount McKinley Denali

McCandless broke his parents’ and his sister’s hearts. But they themselves refuse to hold it against him. Krakauer knows enough about adventuring in the wild to recognize: this boy was no idiot. He made mistakes that others might have made. (Mistakes that he himself, Jon Krakauer, might easily have made, the author humbly admits.)

McCandless took risks that cost him his life. But taking risks is part of…

…following a “vocation.” Finding your calling. Finding yourself. Finding God. No one every actually found God without risking his or her life.

Documentarist Ron Lamoth also chronicled McCandless’ life and death on film. Lamoth uses a phrase that struck me as a little odd. McCandless, Lamoth, and myself: we all came to birth within two years of each other. Lamoth refers to our generation as “free-spirited Generation X.”

Odd because: The Baby Boomers who watched us come of age would not call us “free-spirited.” To them, we looked like Leave-It-To-Beaver Cleavers with Blackberrys. (We still do look that way to them.)

But Lamoth is right, when you look at our early-1990’s “free-spiritedness” in another way.

Our beloved land, and the world at large: it was a lot more wide-open and free in 1992 than it is now. We feared far fewer boogeymen back then. We allowed ourselves to rely on the kindness of strangers. Much, much more than today’s twenty-year-olds can.

To you, dear young people, I apologize for this. On behalf of all us idiots who let the world get this way. We could have taken steps to keep your world freer, calmer, kinder, and more wide-open. But we were idiots, and didn’t take them.

…McCandless did not want to stay in the bush into August. He had broken camp, and headed for town (and communication with other human beings), in July. But he had not anticipated that the stream he had crossed in April would have swelled into a raging river at midsummer–because of snowpack melting on Denali. This was his first big mistake. (Then, in his hunger, he ate the poisonous seeds, which destroyed his digestive system).

My point is: he did not commit suicide. If this or that little thing had occurred to him, at this or that crucial moment (like, ‘Let me get a topographical map before I head out there.’), he might have a wife and kids in the their early twenties right now. He might teach literature somewhere. Or he might be a priest.

May God rest him. Having read Krakauer’s standard-setting account of things, I now number Chris McCandless among my friends in the realm beyond the peak of Denali.