Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pax Christi, Passover

Yesterday I read about Franciscan friar Louis Vitale, 76, arrested for one of his hundreds of protests against nuclear weapons. This inspired my memory. I registered as a "selective conscientious objector" in college with Pax Christi. Reagan thundered as El Salvador and nukes rather than global warming and Iraq filled headlines, alongside perennials: economic crises and political anxiety. My bad dreams anticipated a second Bay of Pigs, sparked by Central American Cold Wars.

Fr. Vitale's energetic and media-savvy stance as covered in the hometown paper, him white bearded and bespectacled in his brown habit and knotted cord, reminded me of the more circumspect but similarly garbed Irish Capuchins with whom I stayed the summer I turned nineteen. I was thinking of joining them, but as I'd fallen predictably in love my freshman year before my visit, I suppose I was fated not to stay. However, as the Mexican nuns at Poverello of Assisi kindergarten inspired me as a lad of five, and as I chose the clunky name "Francis" as my confirmation patron, I like the saint if not his nerdy moniker.

I learned how to count to ten in Spanish from nuns in habits as distinctive as those of friars, same cord, same color; Vatican II ended a couple of years before. Convents had not yet emptied. They soon did at the parish of my teens. Immaculate Heart's women deserted en masse. Their leftist, artsy community after bitter battles with the Los Angeles cardinal largely laicized. One of the parish's liberated sisters joined the sugarcane harvest in Castro's Cuba.

My attraction to Francis paralled mine to the Jesuits; that congregation may number as few today at my alma mater as friars who still wear habits, not to mention the dwindling veterans of the counterculture once Immaculate Heart's conventual sisters, but the restlessly combative scholarly and ideological legacy of the Jesuits did linger, if you sought it out, at the campus I attended. (California's Franciscans had a radical reputation similar to Jesuits and IHC; unfortunately the Order locally's been embroiled in a $2 million lawsuit for sexual abuse of boys occurring in the 1970s.) I'm glad that at least the original spirit of the founder has been continued by such as the frail feisty friar. Fr. Vitale (who also earned a doctorate where I did, at UCLA) went to my college too, but three decades earlier I imagine its ambiance might have been very different: all-male back then, and probably far more regimented.

If you attended LMU when I did, outside of the chapel's bells and curricular requirement for two philosophy and two theology (renamed after I was there from "religious studies") courses, you might barely register its Catholic imprint. I sought it out, despite or because of my own wavering faith in its tenets, I served on a student committee then with a phrase still not clichéd, "Social Justice." I later worked for an ex-Immaculate Heart professor and studied under ex-Jesuits. Such ex-clergy taught at LMU; they probably outnumbered those colleagues still vowed!

At UCLA, I was busier with my studies, but a classmate told me she'd gone to hear Martin Sheen one evening; this was at the height of the Contra debacle. After the talk, she asked him if he'd like to continue the chat over coffee, and he did. This kindness impressed me, and in the article I learned that Sheen's inspiration came from such men in turn as Fr. Vitale. Despite my on-again, off-again fidelity to the Church during my college and grad school years that decade, my involvement in principled opposition to the voices demanding death plunged me into a formative milieu full of Catholic Workers, who believed utterly in total pacifism. "Pax" is the simple, eloquent, and uncompromising Franciscan motto: a hardcore word, "Peace."

I am not a pacifist; I registered as required legally. I also had to if I wanted financial aid for LMU. The accident of my birth date entered me in the first year ever called up for Selective Service under Carter's doomed end-of-term Persian Gulf Doctrine. As a pessimist, I didn't count on my myopia or even my recent and severe knee ligament injury-- which happened when I was at the Capuchin friary visiting one weekend, providentially perhaps, playing sports-- keeping me out of what loomed as inevitable conflict. I figured we pencil-necks would get dragooned into being stretcher-bearers in a malarial Salvadoran swamp. In hindsight perhaps I exaggerate the call-up threat, but more than once I felt the pressure exerted in the early 80s. One night I talked over tequila with a friend and his older brother in the dorms; older brother attended LMU ten years before. Until drafted for Vietnam. He told us of what he had seen, and of the fate of earlier classmates from our same dorms.

I also asserted, in my letter on file with Pax Christi, a Boston organization, that I was a "selective C.O." who did not equate a moral struggle against Nazis with a geopolitical foray against Contras. This nuanced explanation did not jibe with Draft Board definitions, but it did document that prior to any Armageddon that might erupt as we stared down the Evil Empire, how I was no sudden shrinking violet. I admired Thomas Merton's stance as a total C.O. during WWII, and recalled his sorrow at his brother's death fighting in that same war. But, I knew I lacked the conviction that Merton held, and as a shadow of my boyhood defense against schoolyard bullies, I suppose as a snarly Irishman I also recognized the necessity for putting up your fists, even if no geopolitical brawl met facile slogans as "the good fight." As I've matured, I cannot even cheer on the demise of Spanish fascists or screen Nazis. I wonder why I've changed. I'm still rather mean-spirited and misanthropic otherwise!

At the same time I opposed U.S. policy, I favored the Irish physical-force tradition, as its republicans parsed that phrase. I defended the IRA as a legitimate reaction to the abuse of power and the imposition of illegal rule over a people seeking freedom against another empire. This was also the time of the H-Blocks, the blanketmen, and the hunger strikers, speaking of another legacy that ran askew from that aligning martyrdom with devotion, defiance for a cause, and the suppression of the body's desires so as to empower those of the spirit. Against imprisoned and scourged figures draped in rags akin to the first friars and the perpetual poverellos, far more gaunt than many Franciscans to follow, there were arrayed the police, the troops, and the will of one statelet ruled figuratively by an wicked queen and truly by an Iron Maiden. During the 1916 Rising, Dublin's Capuchins counselled the rebels in prison and heard their confessions before their executions.

I knew less as a child about those Irish revolutionaries-- also "voices demanding death" in a complicated moral calculus that as a younger man I could not sum up and still try to reckon but clumsily now-- than Yanks vs. Krauts. I grew up pretending that my baseball bat tucked under my arm was a rifle, as I played with bags of plastic soldiers I tried to melt under a magnified glass's sunbeam. But even my conservative parents never let me hold a toy gun. Fascinated by WWII as a child, I pored over histories. I received an illustrated tome, full of Life-magazine types of black-and-white photos that documented six years of terror. One shot, of a three dead Marines sprawled in the half-ebb on a deserted Pacific beach, moved me greatly. "From Here to Eternity" indeed. That may have been the crucial image that turned me away from a boyhood dream of entering (if my vision cleared) the "Silent Service" like two of my cousins had recently, in Navy subs off the embattled Vietnamese coast.

Named after my mother's only brother who died (while navigating a "duck" or small landing craft as you see in this photo taken by Life magazine in 1943) in the invasion of Saipan in WWII, I inherited an awareness of both war's futility and its necessity. Neither of my parents despite their considerable leanings towards the right cheered on any hostilities abroad. My mom once remarked on her inability to forget the day the telegram arrived with news of her only sibling's death. My dad commented once, despite his blue-collar Reagan Democrat, lunch-pail conservatism, of how nobody wins in war.

He remarked one night to me, when I was probably about seven or eight, as Walter Cronkite recited on CBS the day's duly reported totals of US, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong casualties, how unbelievable the count seemed. Our enemy died in numbers far exceeding ours and even our allies, but still, we were losing. This lesson, only a casual aside by him, but the sort of conversation you grow up never forgetting.

So, something resisting the dominant media message and affirming the Christian alternative must have stuck with my parents and then with me. Needing a confirmation name, I learned more about my patron saint. I admired his offbeat humor and uncompromising stance, even if as a brainy sort I wished the Franciscans boasted the intellectual passion of their rival Dominicans, not to mention the famed infamous Jesuits (they always seemed to have the coolest and most daring name, the bold congregation of cosmopolitan Sorbonne grads branding their corporate logo not after a Marian apparition or a misogynistic anchorite, but Jesus Christ Himself).

By contrast, Francis chose for his band of brethren a diminutive: "little brothers," to contend against the corrupt popes and the mighty emperors. The reason Fr. Vitale joined the Order was because of its sense of humor. An aspect I doubt inspired any postulant for the cassocked Jesuits. Nobody cements planters of St. Ignatius next to those of jolly Buddha or gentle Poverello preaching to Brother Sparrow by the birdbath. Still, we often forget that Francis could be fearsomely zealous, and his uncompromising abuse of "Brother Ass" his body wore him out at about my age. (You can read a straightforward account of his life by Adrian House, which I reviewed a few years ago on Amazon US.) To me, it's a pity that he did not live to Fr. Vitale's eminence; perhaps Francis could have curbed the rapid dissolution of his ideals. But then, the truly committed share with those committed for insanity perhaps an inability to conform; I could never eat coaldust or kiss lepers as he did.

The Franciscan combination continues memorable showmanship. As the photo shows, Fr. Vitale wears his habit when he's arrested for the two- or three-hundredth time. Yet, at least as originally intended, there's a self-effacing reserve expected of a friar, akin to that in the Jesuits. You've never heard of him. The man matters less than his mission. This energy did endear the friars to me. Yet, for a young man, there's not much of a place to learn from them if you're academically inclined-- given their founder's distrust of scholarship over service. Therefore, nearing their eighth century, Franciscans run hardly any universities. Compare this absence, being instead in parishes and prisons, with the Society of Jesus, who nonetheless faithful to their founder's apostolate are administering if in theory more than practice over two dozen colleges in America.

Apropos of education, and nodding to Fr. Vitale, he speculates if Francis may have suffered PTSD. I have taught students who come back from Iraq as mentally wounded and physically crippled. For years, nearly every course of mine has had veterans; a large VA hospital's nearby and the city where the campus sits also attracts many here for rehabilitation who take college classes under their deservedly earned benefits, along with coping with their recovery from trauma. I see the legacy of our War on Terror, and my wife's loyal worker has two daughters now enlisted, one off to Afghanistan soon, and his third girl's married to a soldier.

The Peace of Christ may be a luxury that only a majority religion can entertain. Moses killed the oppressive overseer beating a slave. Only a miracle drowned pursuing Pharoah's army. Battles against Hebrews tend to favor their opposition, otherwise. That may be why the Zionist army's called the "Israel Defense Force." The folk memory of always having to be on the lookout in hostile territory, even when one's seen-- by history's spectator but not the Hebrew participant-- as safe at home.

The previous night at our seder, Layne announced that there were nearly two billion Christians and almost a billion-and-a-half Muslims. Facing them: fourteen million Jews and declining rapidly. She wondered if Leo and Niall along with their peers gathered amidst matzoh crumbs and sticky grape juice would profess any allegiance to the faith within which we've tried to raise them, and seemed as I do tacitly to doubt this. Our discomfort with eternal verities grows with our age. I guess we transmit this meme. Richard Dawkins would approve, if not the rabbis and priests. Such a cultural meme may be viral, as Jews of our generation finally find themselves not much different than anyone else, unless they want to dress up as so.

Like the nun or friar who chooses to wear the habit, they make the decision now to stand out, while the Jesuit or Immaculate Heart member blends in. In Francis' time, he wore what the peasant wore. In Egyptian times, all women wore the veils that now only a few Sisters, long descended from such monastic recluses, choose. Sartorial status now is theirs, not imposed by the outside-- for some communities in Jewish laity as Catholic clerisy enforce the fashion, and others do not-- so much as sought by one who selects to take on the outward sign of conformity from the interior passion for discipline and faithfulness to one's promise before one's Maker.

Before that ambiguous Creator, some at our seder table denied heaven or Moses. Others, unaware or uncaring of such precision that fails to align the reenacted seder's Exodus with the historical record, regaled-- if college students of another generation as distant from mine as Fr. Vitale's collegiate experience was-- with chat about condoms at the grown-up's table. At the "kid's table," those mostly teens chattered away as is their wont. Those bar mitzvahed dismissed attention to the Four Questions; no youngsters wore the kippah proffered. Perhaps for aesthetic reasons.

Layne spoke to eighteen people in our home. All but one single man and one family of four were from families less than "entirely" Jewish by its strictest standards. And/or by their own preference. We at the table attest to a change in American Judaism equal to that in the past half-century of its Catholicism. Technically minorities, but no longer relegated to the margins. "Bridget Loves Bernie" in my childhood, "Abie's Irish Rose" in that of my parents; in our pantry we have a bottle of "Soy-Vay" sauce hawked by the nice Jewish guy who met the smart Chinese gal, and vice versa: this millennium's model for assimilation, culinary and coitally.

For mass appeal, it's even more lucrative farther downscale: a Judd Apatow casting choice for the caricatured parents of the designated Jew. Usually the groom (as Hollywood's makers enact their family romance onto the screen), less often the pivotal moment around which the screenplay tenses or the obstacle by which its shlub-like protagonist finds his amorous pursuit of the majority's trophy wife-to-be queen bee constrained. (That Jersey director's married to one rather untalented, prototypically blonde shiksa inevitably as earnest life mirrors hamfisted art.)

Of course, as my wife inevitably chimes in, "Jewish enough for Hitler" is another story. I read how the Wittgensteins, children of Catholic converts in that opportunistic if understandable lateral move that Austrian Jews in the early last century often ran, had to apply to no less than Der Fuehrer himself for dispensation from the Nuremberg Laws, for they had three grandparents tainted: this added up to "full Jew." While the Gestapo commandeered the W's considerable assets, the deal the family brokered earned them reclassified by a legal fiction, as if descended from an Aryan count. Newly half-breeds, mischlings, this status allowed a couple of compromised sisters to emigrate-- despite their earlier naivete when they tried to flee with bogus passports procured in some backwater like Serbia. Such are the tragicomic complications of allegiance, change, and survival when we try to slip away from our uncomfortable past to accommodate to an equally shifty present.

She also read from three letters she'd recently received. These too spoke of past pressures leading to present predicaments, under the imposition of law and order. Three long-term prisoners, one in for life without parole, contacted her through an activist group linking those in jail with Jewish pen-pals. George, Alan, and Joe were not raised in Judaism; all of them were no more than "mischling" themselves, if often fractionally less. All three lacked sustained exposure growing up to whomever were their Jewish forebears. In middle-to-late age, they all had begun behind bars to explore their heretofore submerged or unspoken Jewish ancestry. Now, they all groped for meaning within unfamiliar songs, stories, and rumors from their families, less spoken of by them than silenced.

They will probably not pass along such a legacy to their descendants. Our children, like their own, will bear surnames and probably punims that nobody will peg as Ashkenazi. They will blend in. Perhaps their cousins and children may read such letters and look backwards to their stories, as Marranos dared to in secret or those in New Mexico do today in public. The Jewish whisper often gets drowned out by the larger presence, in a family tree or on the local train. The seder, as we hope for our boys and the other children there, may represent a glimmer that will shine in their unpredictable and perhaps dark futures.

We never know when meaning will strike us in our moment of need. Jailhouse conversions, foxhole atheists, wake-up calls. This morning, coming to work, I began pondering Fr. Vitale's witness. He grew up one town over from me, in San Gabriel. But, a generation earlier, he came of age in an era when Catholicism still permeated the culture within which he studied. However, from a wealthy family, like Francis he grew up without much piety. Like Francis, he was in the military. He dated and lived whatever passed for the postwar fast life.

As a navigator in the Air Force, Louis Vitale had been ordered to shoot down an unidentified plane. He hesitated, and saw then two women waving to him through their commercial craft's window. Shaken by such calculation, he gave up his playboy lifestyle, sold the roadster, and entered the Friars Minor. When he was ordained, he emerged into the Civil Rights era, and did then what St. Francis would have done.

He restored a parish sanctuary, St. Boniface's on the Tenderloin, and when century-old pews were polished, he invited back the homeless of his saint's city to sleep there. A very Franciscan action. Francis' first act that set him on the road to sanctity was when he repaired San Damiano's fallen chapel after a voice from the crucifix directed him to, symbolically and practically, fix the broken Church.

Anthony McIntyre over at "The Pensive Quill" blog exchanged views March 31 ("Kick the Pope") with one anonymous commenter who critiqued A's contempt of what he's called "priestcraft"-- A's supposition that religion cannot be credited with any corner on the market of good works. In his riposte, it's likely that now, such repairs to our shattered world as moved Francis or Fr. Vitale to enter the vowed life may now draw others into, say, Doctors Without Frontiers or a UN-sponsored charity. The secularized expression of one's social conscience can break away from any spiritual foundation.

It's a thoughtful rejoinder to the defense that many make for organized religious communities in need of restoration after so much institutional rot. Yet, I consider the sacrificial weight added to the religious balance in favor, for a few able to take on such a Franciscan level of craziness, of such unworldly obligation. For a few people, and Catholic lay volunteers along with celibate clergy can be counted here, there's an added impetus of giving up one's goods, one's sexual expression, and one's will to do as one wants for a higher cause. I knew a few classmates who entered the "Jesuit Lay Volunteers" on graduation, going off to teach in Micronesia.

The celibacy issue aside-- I argue for parish clergy to marry but not those in religious orders-- I can find relevance for those who, as with the military, give up success for an ideal. Now, the same of course for the U.S. Peace Corps, but it's rarer to find those who give up their whole life in pursuit of ministering to the poor and needy. The structure-- as with the Jesuit program-- appears to shift towards short-term volunteers under supervision of a few "lifers." Most Orders and monasteries can't sustain their schools, hospitals, shelters, and parishes without "layfolk." Post-Vatican II, the Church had to seek this direction out of necessity, even if future popes refuse to alter the stricture for clerical celibacy.

Those who, in a century that offers so many possibilities formerly denied but a few who chose the religious life over a dead-end one, continue to make with sincerity the big commitment earn my respect. Such a lifelong (or if military, career) choice meets with my admiration despite my differences with the particulars of the powerful ideology furthered! I teach those who served in the military, and I have classmates who were ordained priests. They strive towards good lives and aim at good works probably more often than those who carp and snipe at their daily decisions. Their organizations may fail at their lofty goals of protection and persuasion, they do attract the unworthy along with any other human profession, and their ethical stature rises and falls by the same levels of mortal weakness and strength we others live and work within under doubtless less scrutiny.

The military has taken some of my students from the ghetto and barrio out of gangs, away from prison, and given them self-discipline, self-motivation, and self-confidence. Similarly, even if the Catholic model of renunciation is not one I can condone unreservedly, this time-tested regimen does motivate a few very good men and women. Freer from the necessity of making a living and the temptation of wasting one's time away in distractions than the rest of us, they can contemplate great achievements that, if tethered to family, possessions, and selfishness, would not push them to scale such heights of self-sacrifice.

I wish that we had more Peace and fewer Marine Corps within which such aspirations could be achieved, but until lions lie down with lambs, given our evil natures and the need for vigilance, I cannot dictate or fund an alternative to our military structure for many youths who look for a quick way up, out of poverty and ignorance. Fr. Vitale, to his credit, seeks such an alternative, and protests at the military bases. He follows the message of Christ and his Founder. He brings us closer, as do the pen-pal providers and the medical workers in the Congo and the literacy instructors in Kabul, towards the Franciscan vision and the Messianic age of harmony. Maybe Hamas will never lob a rocket from Gaza; maybe Israel will never have to send one back? I admire these utopian panoramas, but until the government funds schools with as much largess as soldiers, this embattled path towards education, through perhaps trauma, is the flawed compromise with Caesar that parallels that paid to Christ. Or, our taxes for the Peace Corps and the U.N. with its olive-branched seal.

I waited for the light rail the day before Good Friday, thinking about Fr. Vitale, who fasts every Friday. I wondered if he ever got used to it. Did he wear his robe out in public when he wasn't protesting? I'd never seen a friar do so. How would you know a Franciscan if he wasn't in his habit? The whole impact of Vatican II appeared to negate this.

But, I wondered, like I did when as a first grader I was shocked when the nuns showed up with hair and not veils one day, and seemingly overnight abandoned the dress within which they were once concealed. Can a Catholic sister or priest, if one blends in totally with one's peers today, as effectively proclaim the Gospel in the cities to which their Founder called them to work among the weak? Those few congregations that insist on traditional habits have drawn more vocations; those like the IHC and Jesuits who did not have not. On the other hand, Jesus would have looked no less Jewish than Moses, no less one rabbi than any other in Jerusalem then as now. He managed to make an impact. Do preachers do so best as anonymous, or when noticed?

I boarded the train to go to work. Near me, a black man about sixty with a bible on his lap lectured loudly a white man about forty with a bicycle helmet on his head. As downtown swung into view, graffiti and abandoned factories, new lofts and bleak concrete river, sluggish freeways under a grey sky, he proclaimed the arrival of the Abomination of Desolation. Homosexuality signified this collapse of morality; the standards had fallen apart all around us in these, definitely the last times. He warned of hostilities and predicted doom.

We passed Fr. Greg Boyle's handsome new Homeboy Enterprises and Homegirl Bakery, nestled near the Chinatown platform, as the man on the Gold Line preached. These businesses help redeem ex-gang members by creating jobs and nurturing skills. I wondered what the Jesuit activist would tell his fellow Christian. How would Fr. Greg exercise his spiritual discernment, as Ignatius counselled, to listen to such a Bible-thumping man out of a Flannery O'Connor story as he'd meet on this MTA train?

That fellow explained his 10/26 arrest. He'd been in jail many times. The train curved around the bend where on one side the tracks look over a few trees under which homeless men camp on a lot full of concrete that promises for lease "4 Acres: Vignes Tower." I see their heads from the angle where I peer out from the train door sharply down. I can see black hair, napped and tight, the same tonsures I have seen many mornings before. The men sit in front of plastic tents, and always appear to be convening for a coffee break from whatever else occupies their time. Among such a raffish crowd, we are told Jesus and the most Jesus-like fanatic of them all, Francis, ministered.

Ignatius, the wounded mercenary who like Fr. Vitale had his epiphany while recovering from the shock of being a soldier, told his elite recruits they could own nothing except in common, forming them into military ranks and steeling them with their own decade-long boot camp as rigorous as any gang initiation homeboys and homegirls might have faced, in and out of incarceration. Across the rail terminus, the L.A. County Jail rises. A lot next to the caffeinated encampment fills with abandoned LAPD cars.

The Gold Line holy man advised his listener to read his 42 books. He encouraged him to look out for his latest, "The Third Tradition." It's "the greatest story never told because it is too long to ever tell," in his parting phrase as we arrived at Union Station.

About a half hour later, on the Metro Blue Line, despite my concentration on my novel-- by a Basque writer from Loyola's homeland, a story opening in San Francisco-- over my iPod I could clearly hear a black woman in her thirties haranguing a black man about the same age across the aisle. I felt again as if transported not past Compton so much as through Carolina. Her exordium culminated in this conclusion: "Which side will you be on? There has been a great falling away but that does not excuse you. Jesus will demand your soul and your life." She then returned to her glowering silence; I don't know what sparked her loud outburst with the man, but her homily may have been in progress before they boarded. Bearing not an olive branch but a sword, the gospel in these streets darkens. In my city Jesus' message resounds apocalyptically this day before billions commemorate that crucifixion of our Prince of Peace.

P.S. As I prepared to post this, I received this Good Friday a Facebook message from an old classmate. Our (now defunct) high school stood next to a mission built two centuries earlier by friars who founded the same province that Fr. Vitale once led. Sister Leo Francis O'Callaghan, CSJ, our chemistry teacher, is now ill. My speech teacher, Sister St. George Skurla, CSJ, and another sister visited her and sent along this report. The names echo on, and only now do I recall that my uncle bore the same confirmation name I do.
Sister St. George and I went to Carondelet Center with Easter baskets today and in the course of it saw Sr. Leo. She looked extremely thin, her hair was a bit disheveled, and I am sure she didn't know who I was. We also met the Sister in charge of the nursing floor, and she told us that they had noticed a definite change in Sister. In fact, they were beginning to do some remote preparation for her funeral vigil and liturgy!
"Protesting Priest's Path Leads Repeatedly to Jail". Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times. April 8, 2009. Photo caption: "Father Louis Vitale greets activist Mariah Klusmire, 19, of Albuquerque before a rally protesting military interrogation training at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. Klusmire's mother attended events organized by the Franciscan friar before she was born."

P.S. Here's a fine summation:"What St. Francis Did for Humankind."

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