Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Conversations with a Jesuit

After the baptism on Sunday (see post below), we retired to my friend's parents' house, just across the street from the church, where relatives, friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate and enjoy a sumptuous lunch. My friend's brother-in-law, a Jesuit priest, was also visiting. [For reasons that should be clear, I won't identify where he's from, or which province he belongs to. I'll refer to him as Fr. X.] I've met him before, and we've often had some fascinating conversations about evangelization in India, and I'm always eager to hear of his experiences working in the mission fields, in the India that is so distant from my own. Over mouthfuls of rice and spicy Mangalorean chicken curry, we resumed our conversation in a corner, which continued pretty much most of the day, until he and I ended up at Mass in the evening. Here are some highlights:

On the direct proclamation of Christ: during his formation, it was often stated point-blank that evangelization doesn't involve conversion, as in, making new Christians, or calling people to baptism. Indian Jesuits seem to have been influenced a lot by liberation theology from Latin America, and the proclamation of the kingdom is seen largely in terms of social liberation, development, social work, spreading the values of the kingdom and so on. Direct proclamation is to be downplayed, if not eliminated. In a pluralistic society, interreligious dialogue is important, and in a sense, replaces direct proclamation.

I mentioned that while the aspect of the "transformation of culture" is an important part of evangelization, it cannot proceed without equal importance placed on the dimension of personal conversion, of the need for all to be freed from the power of sin and evil. In fact, transforming culture and transforming individuals is, obviously, closely related. There seems to be a complete suprression of the latter, in favor of the former. He agreed and also thought that things were a bit "out of balance."

His experience in the missions: he's among those who think that all the above isn't necessarily opposed to the proclamation of Christ as savior of all humanity; however, his experience in the field has been mixed: in the area he's worked in, caste consciousness among new Christians remains very strong, and often it seems the Church is reduced to a provider of material needs (the old "rice Christian" scenario). However, in other areas there seems to be a deep hunger for spirituality, that is drawing many, especially Dalits, to the Church. In one area he visited, there are "Krist-bhaktis" (Christ-devotees) that come to a Christian spirituality center; the priests there, however, are opposed to leading any of these to baptism, fearing that their faith will become "institutionalized." On the side of the bhaktis, most are loathe to get baptized, since that changes their legal status, and leads to them losing some of the preferences the state provides for Dalits.

On evangelicals: he hasn't had too much experience with evangelical groups; at one point he spent some time studying the methods of evangelization used by evangelical groups in a tribal area of the state he works in. A lot of these he found very off-putting. "They emphasize way too much the idea that unless someone joins their church, they will go to hell." However, recent persecutions have brought evangelical and Catholic Christians a bit closer, even though during one period of persecution, Catholics were keen to point out that they weren't the ones who were going around converting others!

The other side of Third World Vocations: with the shortage of priests in the West, and many Western religious orders and diocese recruiting directly from the developing world, quite understandably, tensions arise. One perception of priests and religious who go abroad is that they line their own pockets with the generous salaries that Western parishes provide (especially by Indian standards). This is probably a rather unfair perception: religious of course contribute to their own congregations, and so yes, congregations do benefit; many raise money for various works of charity in their home areas. However, it's not uncommon for the families of priests to benefit as well: the priest who's in the West, his family gets newer, bigger homes in the village. It's as if this were just another Gulf job.

On liturgy: he seems to share my concerns about the state of liturgy in urban India. "Mass with the tribals is very different. The faith is alive, and that is reflected in the liturgy. In the cities everything seems a bit lifeless, and somewhat forced or perfunctory." We shared similar thoughts about the state of catechesis of the faithful, and he seemed to agree with my perspective that the Church isn't probably ready to face the challenges faced by a society that is growing more prosperous and somewhat secular (though not at all to the extent in the West! India is a deeply religious place in ways that most Westerners can't really grasp, unless they've been here.) I talked a bit about one of the things close to my heart: the formation of the laity as missionaries, as apostles, and not just consumers. Though the lay faithful have a deep faith, with the possible exceptions of charismatic groups, there is very little sense of mission amongst the laity. There is an abundance of priestly and religious vocations, so the circumstances that might create a different environment for lay involvement in the West don't really exist here. "That's Father or Sister's job" is still the norm here. [Lay ministers are unheard of. Of course, it can't be repeated enough that the lay apostolate is NOT the same as lay ministry, and the sooner we clear up this confusion in the West, the better it will be for the Church and for her mission in the world.]

Reviewing all that I'm struck by just how negative so much of it sounds. It seems that when I'm in India, my critical lenses are working overtime. I am now, more so than ever before, especially after a day-long conversation with this priest (and then on Monday, with another Jesuit friend of mine, over lunch at the Archdiocesan seminary in Bombay, where he teaches), aware of just how little I know the Church in my native land. I know nothing of the tribal Church, or of the lives of Dalit Christians, who form the bulk of the Church in India. I have never visited the souther heartland of Christianity (at least not as a Christian).

Towards the end of the day, I got some advice from Fr. X about planning a pilgrimage for a future trip, down south, visiting some sites associated with St. Thomas (Mylapore, Cranganore) as well as Vailankanni. One day, God willing.

Kothambir vadi

On the road again, this time to check in on the condo in Pune. First time I've driven on the famed Bombay-Pune expressway (an utter joy. It's obvious that Indians are a bit nervous driving on wide open roads with clearly marked lanes. They keep weaving in and out; it's a deeply ingrained instinct. At speeds of 100kmh+ that can be a bit dangerous ...). The highlight of course is stopping off at Khopoli, at Ramakant's famous stall (now a proper highway rest area), known far and wide for its batata vadas (a sort of potato dumpling) and my favorite, kothambir vadi: fried dumplings filled with coriander leaves in a spicy batter.

Yum!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Three Baptisms

The only baptism I've attended in India is my own. I've never been to an infant baptism here. The second son of one of my close friends was baptized yesterday, at St. Peter's in Bandra, the same church where I was baptized.

As I reached the church, just before 11 am, a river of people was leaving as the 10 am Mass came to a close. Somehow, I'd assumed that the baptism would be in the context of a Mass. Nope. Just the rite of baptism of several children (three kids, some 50 family members and friends gathered in all). "Shoot, if I'd known that there wasn't going to be Mass, I'd have had breakfast!" Apparently, three baptisms together was a "record for a given week in the parish." I was a little surprised, given that this is one of the bigger parishes in Bandra, and urban Catholic parishes in India tend to be huge. I wouldn't be surprised if St. Peter's counted 15000-20000 souls on its registers

The ceremony took place in three parts, the introductory rites ("What name do you give this child?" "What do you ask of God's church for this child?") at the entrance, the prayers of the faithful, the Litany of Saints (mightly abbreviated. A total of four invocations), and the anointing with the Oil of Catechumens in the middle of the nave, and the rite of baptism itself at the font, which is to the right hand side of the chancel.



Little booklets had been distributed so that the people could follow along, and the priest (the pastor of the parish) periodically gave explanations of some of the symbols and parts of the ritual (the baptismal candle, the white garment). A bit to my surprise, the font itself was empty. The water for the baptism was on a tray to the side in a little cruet. After the blessing of the font (presumably the cruet was close enough to be included in this :)), the sacristan poured some water into a brass, shell-shaped scoop, as each baby was placed over the font and baptized.

The Easter candle was on a beautiful carved stone candle-stand. The candle itself seemd a bit incongruously plain: I was expecting a decorated Paschal candle like one sees in the US.



Like pretty much all liturgies I've been to in India, things seemed perfunctory, somewhat rushed, symbolically stripped down. At one point the priest said something about love as the center of the Christian life. Absolutely. But what connection did any of the things that were going on this day have to do with "being loving?" And at another point, when asking the parents and godparents and those gathered for their support in raising the child in the faith, he said, "And this will happen automatically if we live good and loving lives." Perhaps in the ethnic Catholic enclave that is Bandra this transmission of the faith by osmosis might still be true. I suspect that it's not, as the country becomes more prosperous, as Western secular culture makes inroads, as a consumer culture becomes deeply entrenched. In my own circle of friends from college, several express skepticism about the Church and its claims. They don't see how the "externals" of the practice of the faith is relevant to their lives. They never "get anything out of" the Mass. Stuff that I'm used to hearing in the US.

After the ceremony was over, and photographs had been taken, each mother took her newly baptized child to the tabernacle, in the middle of the high altar, and placed the child there, alone, on the altar, for a few moments, while the family stood in silence in prayer. It was a powerful and beautiful gesture, deeply symbolic. I've never seen this in the US.



Despite all my misgivings about the liturgy, once again I am struck by the deep devotion of Indian Catholics. The faith is planted in rich and fertile soil. I hope that the Church in India realizes the challenges that secular modernity is bringing to the faith, and is ready to face them. The best way, it seems to me, to do this, as so many from the Popes downwards keep emphasizing is to cultivate an intentional faith, to grow disciples. And not just cultural or ethnic Catholics.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Off to Bombay

In a few on the mid-morning Jet flight.

Yay! Aamchi Mumbai!

The new determinism spreads like a virus

A piece pn the front page of today's Indian Express: "Are you Cong or BJP? One answer lies in your genes."
If you are organised, self-disciplined, and more likely to follow rules, you are more likely to be conservative. If you are an extrovert, if you are open to experiences, if you focus on change as an opportunity rather than a problem, you are more likely to be liberal. If you are afraid of death, you are probably a conservative.
Sweet Lord have mercy! This is what passes for intelligent scientific reporting? The article is about a New Scientist paper that seems to find, surprise surprise, a link between one's political affiliations and one's genetic makeup.
A provocative article in the latest issue of New Scientist cites several studies that indicate political positions are “substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason.”
The authors of the article must be the first ones to think that politics is about reason ... :) I am sure they are not jumping to the broad conclusions that this report is. However, that's how the new determinism works. Everything has to be reduced to genes (or psychology) or something that is scientifically measurable. "Sciences" is the new Deus ex machina and the victim in all this is, ironically, reason and liberty. For if every darn thing is about genes, then where is free will? How does one talk about morality at all? Why do we have a criminal justice system? Why bother with right and wrong? [Hey, my genes told me to write this ... ]

And, what an incredibly stupid headline. Which one is liberal, and which conservative? The Congress? The BJP? Do those political terms hold the same range of meanings in the very different landscape of India as they do in the West?

Gah.

In a piece a week or so back, influential MIT linguist Steven Pinker argues that science is now revealing the real roots of morality. There's a pretty decent rejoinder by a philosopher from St. John's Univ. in Queens. This stuff isn't new. Have you read any philosophy recently?

The more I think about it, the more I feel that those preparing for the priesthood should have some solid and deep exposure to philosophy. More philosophy, not less. [I can see my former confreres rolling their eyes :)].

Welcome to the Free World

Indian über-blogger Amit Verma (of India Uncut) has a column in today's Indian Express, on the parallels between the Internet, particularly the blogosphere, and the "spontaneous ordering" of free markets:
There is a lot of junk on the Internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

The blogger Ravikiran Rao once speculated on what would happen if the government decided to protect users from ‘bad blogs’, and regulate blogging. If government babus started deciding what content was appropriate for audiences, good bloggers would be intimidated away, not bothering to enter a space where there were so many hassles. Established bloggers would lobby for regulation to protect them from pesky newcomers. The quality of blogging would go down, not up — and readers would be shortchanged.
It's quite a compelling little column. Of course, I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. I don't think a Catholic can be. I do have my libertarian proclivities though. And any visit to India, where the immense, asphyxiating bulk of the Indian state weighs down on every aspect of life, reinforces those proclivities.

That said, do check out this piece in Slate: Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy. It's not just all liberty. The chaperones are important. Things are a bit more oligarchic than purely democratic.

[Aside: Varma is quite reflexively anti-religious. His critique of religion, it seems, boils down to that tired old Enlightenment dogma: "But it's irrational and backwards and holds people back and look how silly it all is. And see how much violence it engenders." Actually, I'm pretty anti-religious too. In different ways, of course. Christianity, at one level, isn't really a religion. Or just a religion. But that's a separate essay ... ]

The Chair of St. Peter

Some photos of St. Peter's from the last trip to the Eternal City.


Good links for today's feast from Young Fogeys.

A phone call

Just got off the phone with a friend in the US: ethical dilemmas concerning ends and means when it comes to fighting the scourge of abortion. [No, this person isn't planning on killing anyone.]

Can't say much else, except, if you would, pray for this situation.

Good old GK!

Quote shamelessly lifted from that excellent blog, The Ironic Catholic.

When such a critic says, for instance, that faith kept the world in darkness until doubt led to enlightenment, he is himself taking things on faith, things that he has never been sufficiently enlightened to doubt. That exceedingly crude simplification of human history is what he has been taught, and he believes it because he has been taught. I do not blame him for that; I merely remark that he is an unconscious example of everything that he reviles.

--G.K. Chesterton
[Source]

Evangelization from a Muslim Convert

Everyday Apostles, a blog of ChristLife, and evangelization apostolate of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, features Daniel Ali, a convert to Christianity from Islam in their latest podcast. Check it out!

The dead are raised up

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Mt. 11:4-5. KJV)

We tend to think that the "dead being raised" must surely be an exaggeration; or, perhaps we can intellectually give assent to the idea of miracles, and acknowledge that in those special "Bible Times" (and maybe even later, but still safely in the distant past), such miracles could have happened.

But what about now? I'll be the first to admit a certain in-built skepticism -- all us scientific, rational, Western types want to explain stories of miracles away. (And for us Western types who are part of the Western-educated Indian elite, this plays into our snobbery and class consciousness. Most Indians don't have any trouble in believing in miracles, and the closeness of the divine. Of course, we know better.) And I haven't had any direct experience of extra-ordinary physical healings so far. [Though I have certainly prayed for them!] However, for a large swath of the Christian world, miracles are, while hardly day-to-day occurrences, part of reality.

Go over to Intentional Disciples and read this account of the dead being raised, through the power of the most holy name of Our Lord, in ... Palm Beach, FL.

And, praise God!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Seven Deadlies: Pride

[There's been a gap in posting this. Must be because of sloth ... :)]

[Previous: Sloth]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


But the head and origin of all sin is the basic sin of superbia or pride. In one way there is so much to say about pride that one might speak of it for a week and not have done. Yet in another way, all there is to be said about it can be said in a single sentence. It is the sin of trying to be as God. It is the sin that proclaims that man can produce out of his own wits, and his own impulses, and his own imagination the standards by which he lives: that man is fitted to be his own judge. It is pride that turns man's virtues into deadly sins by causing each self-sufficient virtue to issue in its own opposite, and as a grotesque and horrible travesty of itself. The name under which pride walks the world at this moment is the perfectibility of man, or the doctrine of progress; and its specialty is the making of blueprints for utopia and established the kingdom of man on earth.

For the devilish strategy of pride is that it attacks us, nto on our weak points, but on our s trong. It is preeminently the sin of the noble mind -- that corruptio optimi that works more evil in the world than all the deliberate vices. Because we do not recognize pride when we see it, we stand aghast to see the havoc wrought by the triumphs of human idealism. We meant so well, we thought we were succeeding -- and look what has come of our efforts! There is a proverb that says that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. We usually take it as referring to intentions that have been weakly abandoned, but it has a deeper and much subtler meaning. That road is paved with good intentions strongly and obstinately pursued until they have become self-sufficing ends in themselves and deified.
Sin grown with doing good ...
Servant of God has chance of greater sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right.
[T.S. Elliott, Murder in the Cathedral] The Greeks feared above all things the state of mind they called hubris -- the inflated spirits that come with overmuch success. Overweening in men called forth, they thought, the envy of the gods. Their theology may seem to us a little unworthy, but with the phenomenon itself and its effects that were only too well acquainted. Their theology may seem to us a little unworthy, but with the phenomenon itself and its effects they were only too well acquainted. Christianity, with a more rational theology, traces hubris back to the root sin of pride, which places man instead of God at the center of gravity and so throws the whole structure of things into the ruin called judgment. Whenever we say, whether in the personal, political, or social sphere,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
we are committing the sin of pride; and the higher the goal at which we aim, the more far reaching will be the subsequent disaster. That is why we ought to distrust all those high ambitions and lofty ideals that make the well-being of humanity their ultimate end. We cannot make ourselves happy by serving ourselves -- not even when we call self-service th service of the community, for the community in that context is only an extension of our own ego. Human happiness is a by-product, thrown off in our service of God. And incidentally, let us be very careful how we preach that Christianity is necessary for the building of a free and prosperous postwar world. The proposition is strictly true, but to put it that way may be misleading, for it sounds as though we proposed to make God an instrument in the service of man. But God is nobody's instrument. If we say that the denial of God was the cause of our present disasters, well and good; it is of the essence of pride to suppose that we can do without God.

But it will not do to let the same sin creep back in a subtler and more virtuous-seeking form by suggesting that the service of God is necessary as a means to the service of man. That is a blasphemous hypocrisy, which would end by degrading God to a status of a heathen fetish, bound to the service of a tribe, and likely to be dumped head-downwards in the water butt if he failed to produce good harvest weather in return for services rendered.

"Cursed be he that trusteth in man," says Reinhold Niebuhr, "even if he be pious man, or perhaps, particularly if he be pious man." For the besetting temptation of the pious man is to become the proud man: "He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous."

[Can we say AMEN?]

جودھا اکبر Jodhaa Akbar. Zzzzz



Went earlier to see the new Bollywood historical epic, Jodhaa Akbar, about the Hindu wife of the greatest of the Mughals, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar.

Bollywood meets Cecil B. DeMille, meets LOTR (lavish battle scenes, stunning landscapes). With the most tepid of story lines, hackneyed dialogue, stilted and stiff acting, all kinds of irritating anachronisms, totally flat characters, eyes perpetually wide open in anger or hatred or whatever other emotion that Bollywood wants to club us over the head with, so much so that by the time the intermission rolled around two hours after the darn thing started, I leaped out of my seat, and told mom, "I'll see you later!"

Of course all the Muslims spoke saaf Persianized Urdu that would make a PTV anchor proud (yes, it sounds quite beautiful. That's not the point). All the Hindus spoke shuddh Sanskritized Hindi that would bewilder a Doordarshan newscaster. And they all understood each other perfectly. The whole Hindus are from Mars and Muslims from Venus thing was way overdone, as if Muslims and Hindus had just discovered each other. And even a bhai-bhai film could be better than this!

Yes the soundtrack was not bad. Ok it was actually quite good. "Kahene ko Jashn-e-bahaara hai" [YouTube link, includes trailer] is neat. Classic A.R. Rahman. The Sufi song "Khwaja" was captivating). And ok, Ash is still breathtakingly stunning, though definitely not in her teens anymore (Wasn't Jodhaabai supposed to be like 14 or something?). And Hrithik gets another opportunity to let the world know that he works out. (Wasn't Akbar short and dark with a pock-marked face?)

And all those nincompoops who are protesting the historical inaccuracies, and taking them as some kind of kalank (stain), puh-lease. Grow up. Find something better to do than march down streets shouting slogans, whining to mai-bap-sarkar, and disrupting the aam aadmi's life. And, since when did Indians really care that much for historical accuracy? Didn't the NDA government (and every darn BJP government in power in the states) do its best to rewrite history in the textbooks to match its Hindutva ideology?

At least according to mom, I would have hated the second half even more.

:: Sigh :: Most of Bollywood just isn't my cup of tea.

Here's a quote from the review in the NYT:
These royals are played by Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, two rather astonishing specimens of human beauty. Neither is a great actor, but both know what's required of a star and seem to the palace born.

Ms. Bachchan makes Jodhaa's willfulness a sign of character, especially when she lays down the conditions for her marriage: She will remain a Hindu and would like a small temple for her Krishna statue in the Mughal fort. As Akbar, the green-eyed Mr. Roshan, a charter member of the Bollywood six-pack-abs club, has the bearing of a king, yet can seem a little blank when not in motion, fighting enemies or stripped to the waist taming wild elephants (just a hobby).
The title of the review? "A Hindu. A Muslim. Let's Dance."

Heh.

Brazilian priests ask that celibacy be abolished

Just saw this on the blog of Italian Vaticanista Andrea Tornelli. The priests are gathered for the 12th annual meeting of clergy (presumably from across Brazi), where Cardinal Claudio Hummes, erstwhile Archbishop of Saõ Paulo and now prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, is also participating. According to S. Tornielli, the request was made officially to the Holy Father through the same dicastery. According to him the petition suggests that the the discipline of celibacy be retained for those in religious orders with vows of chastity, but not for ordinary parish clergy.

As S. Tornielli notes, every once in a while one hears of some group or the other mentioning the possibility of the lifting of the discipline of celibacy in the Latin Rite. The Synod on the Eucharist in 2005 decided not to deal with this subject. Like S. Tornielle, I don't have any problem in principle with married men being priests (in fact, I know married men who are Roman Catholic priests! One of them blogs and is a great asset to the priesthood and the Church!). In fact, a wider presence of married men in the presbyterate could be salutary for many reasons, even as it brought a host of other problems (what does one do when Father gets a divorce?). However, I will admit to being suspicious of groups who make celibacy a kind of platform issue (it's often accompanied by stuff that is a lot more problematic). As S. Tornielli asks, "è davvero il celibato dei preti il problema della Chiesa di oggi? E' aprendo ai preti sposati che si risolve il problema del calo delle vocazioni?" ("Is the celibacy of priests really the [main] problem of today's Church? And would opening up to married priest be what resolves the problem of the decline in vocations?")

Indeed.

More travel hilarity

Longest Distance Call

I had to cancel an airline booking I had made through Travelocity (one of those rare birds these days: a fully-refundable fare). No way to do it online. I'd have to make a call. I got their US toll-number, and called. The recording suggested I should check online since "most reservations" could be canceled online. I tried again. Nope. So I call, listen to music and to some inane recordings about travel guidelines. "Thank you for calling Travelocity, this is Patrick, how can I help you?" I had to wait on hold several times (on my dime, on an international call), but he took care of it.

His accent was a dead give away. "So, tell me 'Patrick.' Are you in India?" Slight pause, "Yes, sir." In Bombay, it turns out. I bust out laughing. So here I am, making a call to the US some 9000 miles away and another 9000 or so back, to talk to someone 250 miles south of me! This globalized world ...

Of NRIs and Forex
In the bad-old-days of the License Raj, the amount of foreign exchange (Forex) an Indian could take out of the country for a trip was limited. Currency controls were in place. The Rupee wasn't convertible, and so on. A lot of those restrictions have disappeared or eased after the new era of economic reforms that started in 1991. However, the Rupee isn't fully-convertible yet; and while restrictions have eased, they're still there.

I decided that it might be worthwhile to purchase some Euros here before the upcoming trip to Rome, so I called my dad's travel agency. One of the guys there quoted me a rate. It was about 2.5% higher than the daily spot rate. Ok, I won't save money (US banks charge some 2-3% + non-proprietary bank usage charges for any debit card/ATM transactions made overseas), but at least the money won't be going to Wachovia. "Ok, sir. If you can come over now, that would be better. The rates fluctuate ... " No problem. When I get there he informs me that for there is a 10,000INR limit on the amount of foreign exchange that can be purchased by a Non-Resident Indian while on a visit to India. That's barely 170€. I was a bit startled -- I'd figured the rules would be easier for an NRI. "Sir, we don't deal in forex here. If you don't mind, please come with me to this agency." Just up the street.

Accompanying him meant riding pillion oh his motor-cycle. I offered my car. "No sir, it will be simpler on a two-wheeler." I saw what he meant. The road is divided. In order to get to this other place, one would have to go drive down to a break in the median, turn around, and then drive back up. On a two-wheeler, however, one could just ignore the law, and go up the road on the wrong side. This is exactly the kind of behavior that infuriates me when I drive in India, but I was already seated, clutching my passport and checkbook (sorry, cheque book) in one hand, and holding on to the seat with the other.

At the other agency, the guy made photocopies of my passport. I tried to explain that I had an account with funds that were fully exportable. "Sorry sir, these are RBI rules." Yeah, of course. And then, "Umm. We don't have any 100€ notes. They'll come tomorrow. We only have 500€ notes." Which I'm willing to purchase, but you won't sell me! "Ok, I'll check back tomorrow."

Back home, I called my bank. Yes, the funds are exportable. And yes, they will issue travelers checks up to any amount that I wish. Great. Problem solved.

Well, at least I got a ride on a two-wheeler on the wrong side of the road!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

India's two plagues

Sandro Magister, on female foeticide and anti-Christian violence, the "two plagues" of India. [I'd say India has a lot more plagues too ... not the lest of which is a corrupt state, and corrupt politicians and state officials, but I suppose the rhetorical effect of Magister's headline is ok.]

¡Por fin!

The dratted passport, along with the relevant visa, arrived safely. I had visions of unscrupulous couriers nicking it (stealing passports can be pretty remunerative), and me having to negotiate a bureaucratic maze trying to get a new one. File a police report. Fill out hazaar forms. Grease countless palms, as the weeks go by. "But sir you are not resident. How can we do police check? Why don't you go to US and apply from there?" Give in finally, call in some favors high up and actually accomplish something in, oh, say a month or so.

Be not anxious ...

*Sigh* Lots to offer up ... :)

New president for Indian bishops

80 year old Cardinal Varkey Vithyathil, Major Arcbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay is the First Vice President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

It's a bit unusual to have someone this elderly elected; Cardinal Vithyathil cannot, for instance, vote for the Pope in a conclave. He spoke with Asianews:
"My priority is to make the three Episcopal bodies (the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin Churches) work together with greater cohesion, communion and cooperation in unity of spirit," he said. Even though "my election as president was completely unexpected given my age (81), [. . .] I humbly accepted."

For the cardinal India has to cope with many great contradictions. The country is undergoing "great economic development" but still faces "immense misery". Its "constitution guarantees us freedom to practice and propagate our faith and yet fundamentalist forces unleash their reign of terror on minority" communities.
And, then:
More importantly, "evangelisation" is "not merely doing social work, but the explicit and direct proclamation of the message, works and promises of Jesus Christ. It is essential that we communicate the Good News with courage and commitment, bringing joy and fulfillment into people's life," he said.
Music to my ears! :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Upcoming

The latest Atlantic Monthly (March) has an article on the Muslim-Christian conflict in Nigeria. I've just started reading it. No printer here, so I'll have to read it in chunks. Very interesting so far. I'll put a report up later.

Also working on a post about the anti-conversion laws in India. A great (mainly forensic) analysis of the laws appeared in the January 12 issue of the Economic & Political Weekly. [H/t Mike Aquilina for that one.] (EPW is a leading journal of economic thought in India.)

Last few days in Baroda (we go to Bombay on Saturday) so I have bunches of errands to do.

And finally: PLEASE say a prayer that my passport arrives safely from Delhi. My brother couriered it on Monday; it should have reached yesterday (it's Wednesday morning here). He's traveling right now so doesn't have the tracking number. It had better show up today ... else this will be disastrous!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Pakistan

Pakistan went to the polls yesterday, in a tense atmosphere, with the eyes of the world on it. The cream (such as is it is) of the Indian media were across the border reporting live from around the country. The day ended with remarkably little violence, and counting is under way. At one point NDTV's Burkha Dutt was pontificating (in front of a line of Pakistani men in their shalwar-kameezes looking on bemusedly) about the low turnout. "Free and fair might mean something else if hardly anyone turned out." Of course, an election boycott (by one of the parties) is one thing: however a low turnout in of itself is not sufficient grounds on which to question the legitimacy of the election! And what did-she mean by "low-turnout?" 40%! This is low by South Asian standards, but much much higher than in the world's most prominent democracy! By this benchmark, all American elections could be called into question!

In the lead up to the elections, Christianity Today published two interesting pieces on Pakistan and the situation of the tiny Christian Minority: Taliban Targets and Disenfranchised in Pakistan.

More than mere Satchel Bearers

That's the title of a piece in the latest Tablet, by a Jewish writer, responding to the changes in the Good Friday prayer of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass that were recently promulgated by the Vatican.

As expected, many Jewish groups aren't happy. The main reason the article suggest is that in the Jewish mind, any Christian talk of conversion automatically raises the specter of the past, of persecution, pogroms and the "teaching of contempt" which the Church has, supposedly, moved away from. [It has, and rightly so!] But more than this, the Church needs to confront the whole question of Christian mission which, the author acknowledges, is central to Christianity, and its relations to the Jews, something the Church hasn't really done to date. The author then talks a bit about the experience and witness of the Church Fathers (the phrase "satchel bearers" as applied to the Jewish people is from St. Augustine. They were "satchel bearers of revelation" until the coming of Christ), which is less than exemplary, as a caution, and suggests that the Father's anti-Jewish polemic stems from the fact that the majority of Jews failed to convert.

In my reading at least, the article ends a bit abruptly without a clear conclusion, so I'm not entirely sure "where this was going," as one tends to say.

I emailed patristiblogger, noted author and blog-friend Mike Aquilina mainly to get some clarification on the rhetoric of the Fathers. He sent back some links to posts where he's dealt with this topic (here and here), and wrote this:
No one in antiquity behaved according to modern rules of civility, especially in religious matters. If the Fathers were sometimes nasty to Jews, they were nastier to their "separated brethren" among the Christian heresies.

Have you read Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity? If you haven't, please do. It's a very important book — a sociological study of Church growth in the first three centuries. In it he makes several important arguments — one is that the mission to the Jews succeeded. Stark, who was at the time an agnostic, believes that enormous numbers of Jews converted.

Another excellent read is Jacob Neusner's Aphrahat and the Jews. He argues that Aphrahat understood Judaism better than most Jews have understood Judaism, and that his apologies (Demonstrations) are a model for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

I wish I had more time to concentrate on this matter right now. It's very important that we get it right. I don't advocate returning to fourth-century modes of discourse, but neither should we be judging the fourth century by our rules of political correctness. If we do, then the Talmud fails, the Fathers fail. Heck, the Bible fails.
Rabbi Neusner is, of course, the one Pope Benedict engages as an interlocutor in a memorable section of Jesus of Nazareth. He has also written, (see this profile on him in Time. H/t Mike]
"I'm not offended when Christians eat pork," says Jacob Neusner. At least not usually. The brilliant--and none too patient--Jewish scholar does recall a religion conference where so much of the other white meat was served that he was reduced to a diet of hard-boiled eggs. One day on the food line something snapped, and he rhymed aloud, "I hope you all get trichinosis/And come to believe in the God of Moses." A fellow conferee instantly replied, "And if we don't get such diseases/Will you believe in the God of Jesus?" Neusner cackles. "That's an example of the right way to do Judeo-Christian dialogue," he says. "If religion matters, and it does, then it's not honest to be indifferent to the convictions of others."
Amen to that. The liberal way of dealing with religious difference and inter-religious dialogue is to relativize everything, ignore questions of truth, trivialize differences: this stems from a deeply rooted, though I suspect essentially incorrect, modern belief that religious differences inevitably lead to violence, and the way to avoid violence is to remove/reduce/trivialize/relativize religious differences.

True dialogue, of course, involves being firmly rooted in one's own convictions, as one reaches out to, talks with, and is open to, the other.

[It's also incorrect that the Church hasn't examined the question of the mission to the Jews. It has. Cardinal Avery Dulles explains in this 2002 America article on Covenant and Mission. Bottom line, again quoting Mike Aquilina, "If the mission to the Jews isn't valid, then the New Testament makes no sense."]

[It needs to be pointed out that suggesting that the Jesus is as much the Messiah of Jews as he is of Gentiles, while hardly an acceptable theological proposition to a devout and orthodox Jew, is not an expression of anti-Semitism, i.e. of hatred towards the Jews as a culture or people or race!]

The Seven Deadlies: Sloth

[Previous: Envy] [Next: Pride]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


The sixth deadly sin is named by the Church acedia or sloth. IN the world it calls itself tolerance; but in hell it is called despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for. We have known it far too well for many years. The only thing perhaps that we have not known about it is that it is a mortal sin.

The war has jerked us pretty sharply into consciousness about this slugabed sin of sloth, and perhaps we need not say too much about it. But two warnings are rather necessary.

First, it is one of the favorite tricks of this sin to dissemble itself under a cover of a whiffling activity of body. We think that if we are busily rushing about and doing things, we cannot be suffering from sloth. And besides, violent activity seems to offer an escape for the horrors of sloth. So the other sins hasten to provide a cloak for sloth. Gluttony offers a whirl of dancing, dining, sport, and dashing very fast from place to place to gape at beauty spots, which, when we get to them, we defile with vulgarity and waste. Covetousness rakes us out of bed at an early hour in order that we may put pep and hustle into our business. Envy sets us to gossip and scandal, to writing cantankerous letters to the papers, and to the unearthing of secrets and scavenging of dustbins. Wrath provides (very ingeniously) the argument that the only fitting activity in a world so full of evil-doers and demons is to curse loudly and incessantly: "Whatever brute and blackguard made the world"; while lust provides that round of dreary promiscuity that passes for bodily vigor. But these are all disguises for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of acedia.

Let us take particular notice of the empty brain. Here sloth is in a conspiracy with envy to prevent people from thinking. Sloth persuades us that stupidity is not our sin, but our misfortune; while envy, at the same time, persuades us that intelligence is despicable -- a dusty, high-brow, and commercially useless thing.

And secondly, the war has jerked us out of sloth; but wars if they go on very long, induce sloth in the shape of war-weariness and despair of any purpose. We saw its effects in the last peace, when it brought all the sins in its train. There are times when one is tempted to say that the great, sprawling, lethargic sin of sloth is the oldest and greatest of sins and the parent of all the sins.

But the head and origin of all sin is the basic sin of superbia or pride. [On which more tomorrow.]

सिर्फ़ हिंदुस्तान में!

Turns out, I have to send some money to someone in Bangalore. So, I looked up the nearest Western Union branch online: apparently, it's at a nearby Bank of Baroda branch. I go there. There's a big "Western Union Money Transfer Here" sign hanging outside. However, inside, no one has heard of it. Blank looks. "E shoon?" (What's that?) Finally something goes off in one guy's head ... he tells the lady I was asking, in Marathi (it's not that uncommon to hear Marathi in Gujarat), "Oh it hasn't started yet." I look at him incredulously and reply in Marathi, "Suru jhalya ch' adi sign kashyala lavla?" Why'd you put the sign up outside if it hasn't started yet? He just smiles. As we used to say, using the slogan concocted for the 45hth anniversary of Independence ironically (it's always used ironically): Mera Bharat mahan. My India is great. :)

I think I'll send a good old money order via India Post, rather than hunt down an extant Western Union office.

:: UPDATE :: I called two more Western Union agents (as listed on their website) who both first said, "Yes we are agents," but then said that they could only be used for receiving money, not sending it, and then said, "But we've stopped [working for] Western Union recently." I have no idea what the deal is, but something's clearly off. I then sent a text message to the number on the website ("Send SMS 'WU (pincode)' to 3636 to find nearest agent.") Well, it turns out it's not 3636, but 53636. And then I got one name, with an outdated phone number, and an US(!) 800 number to call for questions, along with an Indian toll number in Bangalore. It did seem that I could use a US credit card and have the money sent in minutes online (with a hefty 10% fee), but why the heck should I pay dollars?

Thanks, but no thanks. I went to the nearby Post Office, filled out a money order form (Re. 1 for the form. I only had a 5 rupee coin. "No change?" Ugh. Small change is a perennial headache in India.), gave the money, plus a 5% commission, and sent it off. It'll take a few days; India Post is creaky but reliable.

I think I should send a link to this post to WU's customer service.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lenten Checkpoint

From Deacon Greg's homily for the second Sunday of Lent:
How is your Lent going?

Right about now is when the newness and fervor start to wear off. We've left the ashes in the bathroom sink – or maybe on the pillow. The things we gave up – chocolate, TV, deserts – are starting to look better and better. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe you're dreaming about Ben and Jerry. Maybe you've even fallen off the wagon and splurged on Chubby Hubby or Cherry Garcia and felt the morning-after guilt.

A lot of us find ourselves in that situation during Lent – suddenly doing something out of habit that we had sworn to give up. Fundamentalists might call it backsliding. But I think it's part of what makes us human -- what makes our Lenten journey so challenging – and so vital.

And it is, first and foremost, a journey.
[H/t the Anchoress, who has some great insights of her own.]

All Hail the House of Orange!

(H.M. Queen Beatrix with H.E. Pratibha Patil, the President of India)


...and Her Majesty Queen Beatrix, whose Royal Embassy to the Republic of India deigned to issue me a visa to visit the European Union! (See below)

From an email I sent to friends in Italy:
Sono grado a informarvi che l'ambasciata olandese in New Delhi mi ha emesso un visto turistico di Schengen.

Che viva Regina Beatrice di Olanda! :)

Suppongo che a causa della caduta del governo italiano, i consulati della Repubblica d'Italia si trovano molto confusi, e non possono adempiere lavori facile. :)

VATICAN -INDIA Cardinal Cordes in India to "reflect upon charity" - Asia News

VATICAN -INDIA Cardinal Cordes in India to "reflect upon charity" - Asia News Christians make up less than 3% of the population. Yet ...
In spite of threats and cases of persecution, the Church plays an important role in Indian society. Christians in India run 20% of the elementary schools, 25% of the support structures for widows and orphans, and 30% of those for the disabled, lepers, and AIDS patients.

And today new challenges and opportunities are emerging in connection with the country's accelerating development. "The mission of diakonia", explains the statement, "remains indispensable, both in consideration of the poor, and because of the essence of the Church itself. Since diakonia is an ecclesial activity, the role of the local bishop or ordinary is fundamental: he, in fact, is ultimately responsible for charitable activity".

European Red Tape

One of the joys (I'm being sarcastic) of traveling on an Indian passport is heightened scrutiny at borders. Indian citizens also require a visa to visit pretty much all countries in the West, and most other countries in the world as well (I think the exceptions might be limited to Nepal, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and perhaps a few African nations).

Since I'm stopping over in Italy on my way back, I needed to apply for a tourist visa. Italy is part of the Schengen treaty, and visitors normally get Schengen Visas that allow entry to a host of EU countries (Not all though. The UK, for instance, is not party to the treaty.). Indian tourists require to apply for a Schengen visa every time they visit. Which country's mission one applies at is determined by a variety of factors: what is the primary destination, where one is going to be spending most of one's time, where one enters the Schengen area, etc.

Being a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States does make it unlikely that one will be refused a visa -- US residents are unlikely to be potential illegal immigrants to Europe; the procedure, however, remains the same. One submits a host of documents (travel reservations, hotel reservations for every night of one's proposed stay, or a notarized invitation letter from an EU resident, proof of financial support, travel health insurance, employment) along with a visa fee (around USD100) and get a colorful stamp on of the pages of one's passport that lets one travel to the Schengen treaty area of Europe.

As I was busy packing and moving before coming to India in January, I figured I'd just apply for a visa here. No problem. I've done this before. Right?

WRONG!

With increased tourist and business traffic from India, most Schengen countries have now outsourced their visa applications to a private company, VFS. And there are now strict residency rules: only Indian residents may apply. Since I reside in the US, I should apply in the US. The Italian consulate in Bombay sent me an email (beautiful bureaucratese! I copy it below for your pleasure) saying they might make an exception for a non-resident Indian, however, I'd need to get clearance from the relevant Italian mission in the US. An Italian friend who works with the honorary Italian Consul in Charleston, SC (I am a South Carolina resident) contacted the Italian Consulate in Miami which said that the request had to come directly from the Italian authorities in Bombay. The Consulate in Bombay said they couldn't do anything until I got a no-objection certificate from Miami. Classic bureaucratic Catch-22.

I decided to ditch the Italians and try my luck with the Dutch, since I was entering the EU via Amsterdam (traveling KLM/Northwest one inevitably passes through Schiphol). I sent an email to the Embassy of the Netherlands in New Delhi. No response. I finally got through to a real live human being in the consular section who said that as long as I had the relevant documents, I could apply through the normal channels through VFS. "It doesn't matter that you're not a resident."

Excellent! The sensible Dutch! So, I made an appointment at the VFS office in New Delhi for last Monday. I showed up with all my documents and nearly four thousand rupees in cash. The guys there were very polite. "Why not you applying in the US sir?" They called the Embassy, and reconfirmed that I could indeed apply. "Ok sir. Here is your receipt. It should take a couple of days." Unfortunately, they couldn't send my passport to Baroda. "Sir, if you are in Gujarat you should be going to the Mumbai office. Do you have a Delhi address?" Sure, send it to my brother's place.

All done?

Well, not quite. When I got back to Baroda Monday night and checked my email, there was a reply from the Consular Section of the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands to my email query from eleven days back. "Since you are resident of the US, you should apply in the US. Thank you."

Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot!

On the phone, VFS informed me that they were unable to confirm or deny whether a visa would be issued or not. "Sorry sir, that information is not in our database."

On Wednesday, they confirmed that the passport was being returned to the address I had specified.

On Thursday morning, I called my brother's house. The staff informed me that the courier services would not release the passport unless I was present in person, or left a letter authorizing the delivery of the passport in my absence, along with the receipt that I had gotten from VFS (Thanks for letting me know all this in advance!). So, I prepared an authorization letter and overnighted it to my brother, as well as sending an electronic copy via email for him to print out.

On Friday, my sister-in-law called: my overnight package had not yet arrived, but she had persuaded the courier to deliver my passport on the strength of the authorization letter I'd emailed my brother, which he had signed in my name. YAY! "Can you check if the darn visa was issued?" "Oh, I've left for work. Tonight." Ok. Except yesterday was their wedding anniversary, and they weren't home till late.

This afternoon I got a text message from the brother: "Confirm, visa issued."

PHEW.

St. Izzy had suggested that I pray to Sts. Jude (patron of lost/desperate causes) and Dymphna (patron of the mentally ill). I did. And I asked Our Lady for help too.

Saga over. Now just say a prayer that my passport reaches me safely (bro's going to overnight it on Monday).

And this is peanuts compared to the travails that I underwent navigating the maze of the erstwhile US INS.

Good Lenten penance, though.

For your reading pleasure, here is the email from the Italian Consulate in Bombay:
Mumbai, 01.02.208

Dear Sir,

With reference to your e-mail dated 31.01.2008 kindly note that normally the Italian Consular authority in the place of residence is territorially competent to issue the visa. However is excepted the authority of the Head of Mission, on the basis of his own discretional evaluation and in the presence of adequate motives, the issuance of a visa even to a non-resident Indian. In very exceptional cases the issuance of a visa could be considered but the time taken will be longer, additional documents will be required and these cases cannot be considered as priority. In all these types of cases, the opinion of the territorially compentent Italian Mission must be acquired by this Consulate General, prior to the issuance of the visa.

In order to be able to issue this type of visa this Consulate General should first receive the no objection from the territorially competent Italian Authority in your place of residence. In case this no objection is not received, this Consulate General is not in a position to issue the visa.

You may present your visa application to this Consulate General with a prior appointment, to permit an evaluation of the case. Kindly note that a prior appointment should be taken with The Receptionist from Monday to Thursday from 14.30 to 16.00 hrs. and on Friday from 12 noon to 13.00 hrs.

For visa related information and to download the visa application form kindly visit the following websites:

www.esteri.it
www.vfs-italy.co.in



xxxx
For The Consul General

The Seven Deadlies: Envy

[Previous: Covetousness] [Next: Sloth]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


But we are only halfway through our list of the deadly sins. Hand in hand with covetousness goes its close companion -- invidia or envy -- which hates to see other men happy. The names by which it offers itself to the world's applause are right and justice, and it makes a great parade of these austere virtues. It begins by asking, plausibly, "Why should not I enjoy what others enjoy?" and it ends by demanding, "Why should others enjoy what I may not?" Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouths are "my rights" and "my wrongs." At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.

In love, envy is cruel, jealous and possessive. My friend and my marriage partner must be wholly wrapped up in me and must find no interests outside me. That is my right. No person, no work, no hobby must robe me of any part of that right. If we cannot be happy together, we will be unhappy together, but there must be no escape into pleasures that I cannot share. If my husband's work means more to him than I do, I will see him ruined rather than preoccupied; if my wife is so abandoned as to enjoy Beethoven or dancing or anything else that I do not appreciate, I will so nag and insult her that she will no longer be able to indulge those tastes with a mind at ease. If my neighbors are able to take pleasure in intellectual interests that are above my head I will sneer at them and call them by derisive names because they make me feel inferior, and that is a thing I cannot bear. All men have equal rights, and if these people were born with any sort of privilege, I will see to it that that privilege shall be made worthless, if I can, and by any means I can devise. Let justice be done to me, though the heavens fall and the earth be shot to pieces.

If avarice is the sin of the haves against the have-nots, envy is the sin of the haven-nots against the haves. If we want to see what they look like on a big scale, we may say that avarice has been the sin of the Anglo-Saxon democracies, and envy the sin of Germany. Both are cruel -- the one with a heavy, complacent, and bloodless cruelty; the other with a violent, calculated, and savage cruelty. But Germany only displays in accentuated form an evil of which we have plenty at home.

The difficulty about dealing with envy is precisely that it is the sin of the haven-nots, and that, on that account, it can always find support among those who are just and generous minded. Its demands for a place in the sun are highly plausible, and those who detect any egoism in the demand can readily be silenced by accusing them of oppression, inertia, and a readiness to grind the face of the poor. Let us look for a moment at some of the means by which envy holds the world to ransom.

One of its achievements has been to change the former order by which society was based, on status, and substitute a new basis -- that of contract. Status means, roughly speaking, that the relations of social units are ordered according to the intrinsic qualities that those units possess by nature. Men and institution are valued for what they are. Contract means that they are valued, and their relations ordered, in virtue of what bargain they are able to strike. Knowledge, for example, and the man of knowledge can be rated at a market value -- prized, that is, not for the sake of knowledge, but for what is called their contribution to society. The family is esteemed, or not esteemed, according as it can show its value as an economic unit. Thus, all inequalities can, theoretically, be reduced to financial and utilitarian terms, an the very notion of intrinsic superiority can be denied and derided. In other words, all pretension to superiority can be debunked.

The years between the wars saw the most ruthless campaign of debunking ever undertaken by nominally civilized nations. Great artists were debunked by disclosures of their private weaknesses; great statesmen, by attributing to them mercenary and petty motives, or by alleging that all their work was meaningless, or done for them by other people. Religion was debunked and show to consist of a mixture of craven superstition and greed. Courage was debunked, patriotism was debunked, learning and art were debunked, love was debunked, and with it family affection and the virtues of obedience, veneration, and solidarity. Age was debunked by youth, and youth by age. Psychologists stripped bare the pretensions of reason and conscience and self-control, saying that these were only the respectable disguises of unmentionable unconscious impulses. Honor was debunked with peculiar virulence, and good faith, and unselfishness. Everything that could possibly be held to constitute an essential superiority had the garment of honor torn from its back and was cast out into the darkness of derision. Civilization was finally debunked till it had not a rag left to cover its nakedness.

It is well that the hypocrisies that breed like mushrooms in the shadow of great virtues should be discovered and removed, but envy is not the right instrument for that purpose, for it tears down the whole fabric to get at the parasitic growths. Its enemy, in fact, is the virtues themselves. Envy cannot bear to admire or respect; it cannot bear to be grateful. But it is very plausible; it always announces that it works in the name of truth and equity. Sometimes it may be a good thing to debunk envy a little. For example: here is a phrase that we have heard a good deal of late:

"These services (payments, compensations, or what not) ought not to be made a matter of charity. We have a right to demand that they should be borne by the state."

It sounds splendid; but what does it mean?

Now, you and I are the state, and where the bearing of financial burden is concerned, the taxpayer is the state. The heaviest burden of taxation is, naturally, borne by those who can best afford to pay. When a new burden is imposed, the rich will have to pay most of it.

Of the money expended on charity, the greater part -- for obvious reasons -- is contributed by the rich. Consequently, if the burden hitherto borne by charity is transferred to the shoulders of the taxpayer, it will inevitably continue to be carried by exactly the same class of people. The only difference is this: that people will not longer pay because they want to -- eagerly and for love -- but because they must, reluctantly and under pain of fine or imprisonment. The result, roughly speaking, is financially, the same; the only difference is the elimination of the two detested virtues of love and gratitude.

I do not say for a moment that certain things should not be the responsibility of the state -- that is, of everybody. No doubt those who formerly contributed out of love should be very willing to pay a tax instead. But what I see very clearly is the hatred of the gracious act and the determination that nobody shall be allowed any kind of spontaneous pleasure in well-doing if envy can prevent it. "This ointment might have been sold for much and given to the poor." Then our nostrils would not be offended by any odor of sanctity -- the house would not be "filled with the smell of ointment." It is characteristic that it should have been Judas who debunked that act of charity.

MySpace nun

MySpace nun hasn't forgotten to have fun.[Via Deacon Greg]
She jams on an electric guitar and introduces herself on her hot-pink MySpace page as a straight, single Libra who loves to watch "Fiddler on the Roof." All in a nun's habit.

Meet Sister Rebecca Shinas, a 56-year-old member of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose. But if you're a 20-something Catholic searching for spirituality in Silicon Valley, you might know her as "Sista B" or the "MySpace Nun."

"The Dominican tradition invites us to read the signs of the times," Sister Rebecca said recently in her brightly lit office at St. Simon Church in Los Altos. "And the signs are now online. MySpace is where this generation lives."

She's got 86 "friends" linked to her MySpace page, from as far away as Zimbabwe. She meets some through Catholic connections. But she once swapped urls with another young woman - a self-described Satan worshipper - at the mall.

She insists she's not trying to save anyone, or even bring them to church.

"Oh God, no," she said. "I love them as people. I have a lot to learn from them. This generation is great at reality checks. My goal is love. And church is much bigger than any four walls."

Sister Rebecca isn't the first religious figure to strum hip tunes or go high-tech. But what's surprising is that MySpace and music are linking people of all stripes with a woman who shatters stereotypes and talks of loving human beings for who they are.

"Most nuns are really mean," said Mark Graham, 48, a Cisco software engineer who plays guitar with Sister Rebecca and posts her concerts on YouTube. "She's the exact opposite of that. How many times have you seen a nun play electric guitar?"

Not one to judge people, Sister Rebecca believes that the world is not divided by good and evil people, just those who are "ripe and unripe," taking a line from Jesus' Aramaic teachings.
Well, here's to ripeness, then. :)

[I'm reminded of another singing nun, also a one-time Dominican, Soeur Sourire (Jeanne Deckers), whose songs I loved as a kid. Yep very 60s -- except I was listening to them on an old vinyl in the 80s. :) And yes, I'll admit it, I used to love Dominique (YouTube link)! Her tale is one of tragedy, however.]

2008 Catholic Blog Awards nominations open! [Sticky]

[This is a sticky post and will remain at the top of the blog for a while (hence the post-dating). Regular posts continue below. Dogwood reminds me that this is a competition so I should compete. So be it. There are, in my opinion, several worthier blogs in the Clergy/Religious/Seminarian category ... but thanks for the vote of confidence! :)]



Go and nominate your favorite blogs!

Like last year, you have to register. The registration you created last year is still valid.

Unlike last year, you can nominate a blog only once in one category.

Have at it!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Cross They Bear

A piece in the last Economist about the travails of Christians in India, focusing on the violence in Orissa. (I have no idea if the article is available in full online, so I'm putting the full-text below after the jump.) Money quote:
As in other religious conflicts in India, the trouble between Christians and Hindus in the tribal belt has more to do with politics than theology. In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise. But identifying religious minorities as a common enemy has proved an effective rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups.
The common charge by Hindu-nationalist activists is that anti-Christian violence is the deplorable (and sometimes not even that) but understandable response of Hindus outraged at the denigration of their customs and religion by Christian missionaries.

The article identifies the "politics" as the politics of targeting minorities in order for electoral gain. There is also the "politics" of missionaries who challenge the caste-discrimination against tribals and Dalits in these regions and court the fury of the establishment.

The other line that jumped out at me: "In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise." I suspect that's the case of Catholics all over India. In my experience (which is limited and do remember that India is a vast and diverse country), Catholics exist as a separate ethnicity, with distinct cultural practices and customs; however the idea that mission is at the heart of Christian existence seems to be absent. The Great Commission is observed more by Protestants or independent Christians rather than Catholics, who -- leaders as well as laity -- seem to have internalized this development after the Council that dialogue has now replaced mission in response to the realities of a religiously plural society, and many argue openly that this ought to be the case.

In many Catholic circles, the word "proselytize" is distinguished from "evangelization" and has negative connotations of fraud, material or other incentives, force, or denigration. In ordinary English it continues to mean attempts to propagate one's own religion. I feel confident that the Economist article is using it with this intent. This is not to suggest that Catholics ought to imitate the negative tactics of other Christians -- evangelization, as Pope Paul VI reminded us -- relies on the power of the truth and the message of the Gospel alone. It remains essential to the Church's existence. She exists -- not just to do good, not to be a separate ethnicity or community aloof and apart from the world, not simply to help and aid in the development of society, or to reach out to the poor and the unwanted -- before all this she exists to evangelize. It is her deepest mission and identity.

India's Christians
The cross they bear

Feb 7th 2008 | BOTHALI
From The Economist print edition
Politics fuels religious violence

THE blackened shell of a burnt car lies in the yard of Radha Bai's farm in this bucolic village of whitewashed houses and unhurried bullock carts in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. On January 16th, as she prayed with a large group of Christians, a mob of Hindu extremists arrived. They chased worshippers away, set fire to a car and ten motorcycles and, says Mrs Bai, threatened to cut her "into pieces".
AP Marching as to war

In recent weeks Hindu extremists in India's "tribal belt"—where missionaries have long sought to convert traditionally animist forest-dwellers—have stepped up a vicious anti-Christian campaign. Over Christmas in neighbouring Orissa mobs set fire to 55 churches and 600 houses. Asghar Ali Engineer, of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, a Mumbai think-tank, calls it the worst anti-Christian violence independent India has seen.

Ramesh Modi, Chhattisgarh state president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, which propagates "Hindutva", or "Hinduness", says that Christians are "responsible for the violence themselves". Missionaries in the area, he says, are converting Hindus illegally. Chhattisgarh and Orissa are among several Indian states to have laws banning forced conversions.

It is true that an expansionist evangelist movement is in full swing in India's tribal belt. Its targets are tribal people, Hindus, even Christians, many of whom say they have switched churches to join independent Pentecostal groups. Officially, fewer than 3% of Indians are Christian. But Arun Pannalal, of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, reckons the true proportion may be twice that. Christian converts often claim to be Hindus to keep access to government jobs and college places "reserved" for Hinduism's lower castes. Most Indian Christians are dalits, at the bottom of the caste system, once known as "untouchables".

Mr Pannalal, whose own church belongs to the Anglican Communion, regrets the proselytising style of some pastors, and their habit of ripping into Hindu gods from the pulpit. They lay themselves open to accusations of illegal conversion. More than 230 people have been arrested on conversion charges in the state in the past two years. But Mr Pannalal says very few cases go to court "because the conversions are not forced and there is no case".

As in other religious conflicts in India, the trouble between Christians and Hindus in the tribal belt has more to do with politics than theology. In Orissa, the Christmas violence was mostly directed at Catholics, who tend not to proselytise. But identifying religious minorities as a common enemy has proved an effective rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups.

In December the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won elections in the western state of Gujarat, where it has had a well-documented hand in the persecution of Muslims. Christians in the tribal belt believe Hindu extremists have been emboldened by its success. Later this year, Chhattisgarh itself goes to the polls. Christians fear more violence.

The Seven Deadlies: Covetousness

[Previous: Gluttony] [Next: Envy]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


[This section is rather long, but well worth the read. There is a damning critique of the fruit of covetousness - usury, and a lot of it is quite relevant to our times. The last section I've highlighted, since it is more than relevant to the current election discussions. However, the inveterate free-trader and pro-liberalization (economically speaking), pro-globalziation kinda guy that I am, there is a lot that doesn't sit well with me. Maybe I'll get to writing something again about free-markets and Catholicism.]

Gluttony is warm-hearted. It is the excess and perversion of that free, careless, and generous mood that desires to enjoy life and to see others enjoy it. But, like lust and wrath, it is a headless, heedless sin, that puts the good-natured person at the mercy of the cold head and the cold heart; and these exploit it and bring it to judgment, so that at length it issues in its own opposite – in that very dearth in the midst of plenty at which we stand horrified today.

It is especially at the mercy of the sin called avaritia or covetousness. At one time this sin was content to call itself honest thrift, and under that name was, as they might say in Aberdeen, “varra weel respectit.” The cold-hearted sins recommend themselves to church and state by the restraints they lay upon the vulgar and disreputable warm-hearted sins. The thrity poor do not swill beer in pubs or indulge in noisy quarrels in the streets to the annoyance of decent people.
Moreover, they are less likely to become a burden on the taxpayers. The thrifty well-to-do do not abash their pious neighbors by lavish indulgence in gula or luxurua – which are both very expensive sins. Nevertheless, there used always to be certain reservations about the respect accorded to covetousness. It was an unromantic, unrespectable sin. Unkind people sometimes called it by rude names, such as parsimony and niggardliness. It was a narrow, creeping, pinched kind of sin; and it was not a good mixer. It was more popular with Caesar than with Caesar’s subjects; it had no glamor [sic] about it.

It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and to give it a title that it could carry like a flag. It occurred to someone to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its head cocked over its eye, and with pistols tucked into the tops of its jack-boots. Its war cries are “Business efficiency!” “Free Competition!” “Get Out or Get Under!” and “There’s Always Room at the Top!” It can no longer be troubled to deal in real wealth and to remain attached to work and the soil. It has set money free from all such hampering ties; it has interests in every continent; it is impossible to pin it down to any one place or any concrete commodity – it is an adventurer, a roving, rollicking free lance. It looks so jovial and has such a twinkle in its cunning eye that nobody can believe that its heart is as cold and calculating as ever.

Besides, where is its heart? Covetousness is not incarnated in individual people, but in business corporations, joint stock companies, amalgamations, trusts, which have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned – nor hearts to be appealed to, either. It is very difficult to fasten on anybody the responsibility for the things that are done with money. Of course, if covetousness miscalculates and some big financier comes crashing down, bringing all the small speculators down with him, we wag self-righteous heads and feel that we see clearly where the fault lies. But we do not punish the fraudulent businessman for his frauds, but for his failure.

The Church says covetousness is a deadly sin, but does she really think so? Is she ready to found welfare societies to deal with financial immorality as she does with sexual immorality? Do the officials stationed at church doors in Italy to exclude women with bare arms turn away anybody on grounds that they are too well dressed to be honest? Do the vigilance committees who complain of suggestive looks and plays make any attempt to suppress the literature that suggests getting on in the world is the chief object in life? Is Dives, like Magdalen, ever refused the sacraments on the grounds that he, like her, is an “open and notorious evil-liver”? Does the Church arrange services, with bright congregational singing, for total abstainers from usury?

The Church’s record is not, in these matters, quite as good as it might be. But iti s perhaps rather better than that of those who denounce her for her neglect. The Church is not the Vatican, nor the Metropolitans, nor the Bench of Bishops; it is not even the vicar or the curate or the church wardens; the Church is you and I. And are you and I in the least sincere in our pretense that we disapprove of covetousness?

Let us ask ourselves one or two questions. Do we admire and envy rich people because they are rich, or because the work by which they made their money is good work? If we hear that Old So-and-so pulled off a pretty smart deal with the town council, are we shocked by the revelation of the cunning graft involved, or do we say admiringly, “Old-so-and-so’s hot stuff – you won’t find many flies on him”? When we go to the cinema and see a picture about empty-headed people in luxurious surroundings, do we say, “What drivel!” or do we sit in misty dream, wishing we could give up our daily work and marry into surroundings like that? When we invest our money, do we ask ourselves whether the enterprise represents anything useful, or merely whether it is a safe thing that returns a good dividend? Do we regularly put our money into football pools or dog racing? When we read the newspapers, are our eyes immediately arrested by anything that says “MILLIONS” in large capitals, preceded by the £ or $ sign? Have we ever refused money on the grounds that the work that we had to do for it was something that we could not do honestly or do well? Do we NEVER choose our acquaintances with the idea that they are useful people to know, or keep in with people in the hope that there is something to be got out of them? And so we – this is important – when we blame the mess that the economical world has got into, do we always lay the blame on wicked financiers, wicked bankers – or do we sometimes ask ourselves how far we have contributed to make the mess?

Just as the sin of gluttony thrives on our little greeds, so the sin of covetousness thrives on our little acts of avarice – on the stupid and irresponsible small shareholder, for example, who is out to get money for nothing. There is a book called Wall Street Under Oath that makes entertaining but shameful reading. It is an account of the exposure of various great business and banking frauds in the United States at the time of the post-war slump. When we have finished wondering at the barefaced venality, graspingness, and lack of scruple of the notorious financiers who stood in the dock to answer the charge of fraud, we may fruitfully wonder at the incredible avarice and criminal folly of their victims. For no shareholder could vend his worthless stock if he could not count on meeting, in his prospective victim, an unscrupulous avarice as vicious as his own, but stupider. Every time we expect, as is said, our money to work for us, we are expecting other people to work for us; an when we expect it to bring in more money in a year than honest work could produce in that time, we are expecting it to cheat and steal on our behalf.

We are all in it together. I often wonder why Germany was so foolishly impatient as to go to war. If domination were all she wanted, she could have it without shedding a drop of blood by merely awaiting long enough and trusting to the avarice of mankind. You may remember the sordid and cynical French businessman on the boat that brought Elie J. Bois to England after the collapse of France. Someone asked him, “Why did France break down like this?” and he answered: “Because she has too many men like me.” France was bought; the politicians were bought; the press was bought. Labor was bought, the church was bought, big business was bought, even the army was bought. Not always by open bribes in cash, but by the insidious appeal to security, and business interests and economic power. Nobody would destroy anything or let go of anything; there was always the hope of making a deal with the enemy. Everybody, down to the smallest provincial official and the pettiest, petty shopkeeper, ahd a vested interest in nonresistance.

Wars are not made by businessmen, who are terrified at the threat of their powers: what businessmen make are surrenders. Nobody prays more fervently than the businessman to be freed from the crushing burden of armaments; the first thing that happens in a war is the freezing of international credits, which the businessman does not like. The same businessman who will view with perfect indifference the senseless destruction of fish and fruit, coffee and corn in peacetime, because it does not pay to distribute them, is preternaturally sensitive about the senseless destruction of property by war. Patience, cunning, and the appeal to avarice could bring down the whole world into economy subjugation by a slow, interior corruption. We may, perhaps, count ourselves fortunate that Hitler’s patience was at length exhausted and that he conjured up the devil of wrath to cast out the devil of covetousness. When Satan casts out Satan, his kingdom does not stand; but we have come to a grievous pass if we have to choose between one devil and another – if the only deliverance from covetousness is the wrath of war, and the only safeguard against war, a peace based on covetousness.

The virtue of which covetousness is the perversion is something more positive and warm-hearted than thrift. It is the love of the real values, of which the material world has only two: the fruits of the earth and the labor of the people. As for the spiritual values, avarice has no use for them; they cannot be assessed in money, and the moment that anyone tries to assess them in money they softly and suddenly vanish away.

We may argue eloquently that honesty is the best policy. Unfortunately, the moment honesty is adopted for the sake of policy it mysteriously cease to be honesty. We may say that the best art should be recompensed at the highest rate, and no doubt it should; but if the artist lets his work be influenced by considerations of marketing, he will discover that what he is producing is not art. And we may say, with some justice, that an irreligious nation cannot prosper; but if a nation tries to cultivate religion for the sake of regaining prosperity, the resulting brand of religion will be addressed to a very odd God indeed. There is said to be a revival just now of what is called interest in religion. Even governments are inclined to allot broadcasting time to religious propaganda, and to order National Days of prayer. However admirable these activities may be, one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because he might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Prayers for Jamie

One of my dearest and closest friends has been battling cancer for nearly a year now. Last month she found out that it has metastasized into her blood stream, i.e. she has leukemia.

She hasn't exhausted all medical treatment options, and she's undergoing an aggressive chemotherapy regime (and you'd never be able to tell if you met her!)

So, I invite any and all who come across this blog to pray for her, for strength, for encouragement, for healing, for a miracle.

From the Gospel at Mass today:
"Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
A prayer for the intercession of Fr. Isaac Hecker:

Heavenly Father, you called your servant Isaac Thomas Hecker to preach the Gospel to the people of North America and through his teaching, to know the peace and the power of your indwelling Spirit. He walked in the footsteps of Saint Paul the Apostle, and like Paul spoke your Word with a zeal for souls and a burning love for all who came to him in need. Look upon us this day, with compassion and hope. Hear our prayer. We ask that through the intercession of Father Hecker your servant, you might grant us a cure for Jamie's cancer. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, Your Son, Our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. One God, forever and ever. Amen

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Luke Timothy Johnson disinvited from the Diocese of Belleville

The editorial in the latest Commonweal is the first (and only time) I'm hearing about this incident. Apparently, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic Scripture scholar (who teaches at Emory in Atlanta) was supposed to speak at a Newman Center in the Diocese of Belleville, IL. The event was canceled after Bishop Braxton dis-invited Dr. Johnson, because of his publicly stated views dissenting from important magisterial teaching.

The editorial draws a parallel to the recent incident at Rome's LaSapienza university, where enraged liberals (leftists) protested the Pope's visit, which he canceled.
Conservative Catholics were quick to point out the irony of this illiberal resort to censorship by those who think of themselves as guardians of rationality and open debate. Surely liberals and conservatives, both within and outside the church, can agree that it is better for opponents to hear one another out than to foreclose a respectful exchange of views. Whatever the content of his address, Benedict never posed a threat to academic freedom.

Regrettably, however, censorship is alive not only among secularists at La Sapienza, but also among some bishops who seem to think the best way to obey Benedict's call to strengthen the boundaries of Catholic identity is to marginalize those who question any magisterial teaching.
Of course, any Bishop is well within his bounds in taking the action that Bishop Braxton did: it is the duty of a Bishop to take steps to defend the faith.

That said, I find myself a bit sympathetic with the stance of the editors of Commonweal. The thing is, I wonder often if this is the best way to achieve that end. What message does the dis-invitation of a well-regarded Scripture scholar send? Does it not, yet again, seem to portray the Church as a repressive institution, fearful of open discussion? The arguments and ideas are short-circuited; instead, one gets apologists and opponents of the Bishop's actions.

True, we have seen much -- way too much -- dissent in the past few decades, masquerading under the banner of liberty, progress and creativity. Dissent that has been corrosive to tradition, in the literal sense, of the ability to pass on the faith. (Just take an informal poll of more left-leaning Catholics to see how many of their children still practice Catholicism)

However, reducing fidelity to the Magisterium to some kind of external litmus test to a party-line i.e., to authoritarianism, is not the answer; and, I suspect, that is exactly what these kinds of actions do. The question I ask myself is: how do people come to trust the Church's authority, especially when it seems to contradict their own experience, and flies in the face of a culture that is distrustful of institutional claims to authority to begin with?

Let there be debates! (Johnson and Even Tushnet had a memorable exchange in the pages of Commonweal a little while back, on the vexed question of homosexuality) Let different ideas battle it out! If Johnson was going to speak on subjects where he expresses dissent, find someone else to respond! This was supposed to be a University setting, after all. Let's not appear to be timid about defending what we believe. Ours is, after all, a reasonable faith.

Seeming to shut up the opposition, does not, in the long run, help the cause of truth, or of fidelity to the Magisterium, and seems, at least on the surface, to confirm the fears (expressed mainly in more liberal Catholic circles) that all the rhetoric about the truth being proposed and not imposed is just empty rhetoric.

[Disclaimer: This reflection is based entirely upon what I've read in the Commonweal editorial. I have no other knowledge of the incident.

Additionally, this is not to say that simply any perspective can be tolerated in a Catholic setting, or promoted as Catholic: the question of identity, and boundaries is very important, particularly after decades of so much dissent. For instance, questions about human life, especially abortion, are clearly of a different order of magnitude.

Actually, I would think that in a Catholic setting, inviting only a speaker who is going to speak on a topic and present a dissenting perspective would be inadvisable, and even wrong. Some might say that presenting a debate between a dissenting position and an orthodox position might seem to suggest that both positions have the same claim to authority. This is a valid criticism. However, in some contexts, such discussions and debates are warranted -- a University or college setting might be one of those contexts. In fact, anything that encourages a return to discussion and argument about matters of truth, rather than simply treating everything as a matter of opinion or politics, i.e. power, is to be welcomed, IMO.

Just some initial reflections. Feedback more than welcome.]