by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

At the Vatican: First the Windows, Now the Doors

It’s already late to be posting a piece about the synod, I guess.  Almost forty-eight hours have passed since it concluded!  One of the synod’s bishops posted about it right as it wrapped up!

Bishops blogging; the media following synodal developments in real time — as the Jesuit priest James Martin pointed out in America (a full thirty-six hours ago now), these new developments go further than we might realize in pointing up just how different this synod was from previous ones.

What happened at the synod?  Well, it seems to me that what happened is what has been happening ever since Francis was elected pope.  And what is that?  The pope has been working against the tremendous bulwark-building efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI “in the service of a more open, flexible church” — and is meeting considerable opposition.    

When Bergoglio the Jesuit cardinal was elected pope – and elected to live in the guesthouse rather than the papal apartments — he made clear that he would occupy the papal office differently than his immediate predecessors did.  And so he has.  With his public gestures and off-script remarks (“Who am I to judge?” is just one) he has taken a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism” — and back toward John XXIII’s aggiornamento, a k a “the opening of the windows.”  By appointing a group of eight cardinal advisors, he made clear that

… the bishop of Rome now consults with his fellow bishops from around the world. And by making clear that the Church—and the papacy—must change with the times, he is putting a stop to John Paul and Benedict’s long effort to make Church doctrine an adamantine bulwark against relativism.

… For the past 35 years, progressive Catholics have felt thwarted. Now it’s the traditionalists’ turn. “Benedict was like a father to them,” the well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me. “No, he was a father to them. Now they are fatherless.” Benedict’s courageous act of renunciation, they feel, wasn’t supposed to turn out this way—not when the fight for the Church had finally been won. They are vexed by the thought that the change is irreversible, that the doors John Paul and Benedict strove to push closed—on sexuality, the ordination of women, the authority of the pope—will now stay open.

When the Atlantic piece came out, plenty of readers proposed that I was overstating the extent of Pope Francis’ determination to bring about changes in Catholic life and overstating the extent of the divisions in the curia and in the College of Cardinals.  Well, the synod has made clear that, if anything, the piece understated things.  The church is once again a church on the way.   The doors are open, and they’ll stay open.  

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 54: Blake Mills, “If I’m Unworthy”

Blake Mills is the most talked-about young electric guitarist just now, and with good reason.  He has figured out how to update the guitar stylings on the great Los Angeles records of the seventies – Ry Cooder’s, David Lindley’s with Jackson Browne – without sounding retro or session-slick.

This song from his new record is a straightforward love song – but the single word unworthy, sung again and again, moves it to a deeper place, past the “need” side of love (and past the echoes of the unworthy superfans in Wayne’s World, which can’t be helped) and toward the side of love having to do with power and obligation.

“I’ve found a new meaning for one of the oldest words in use – Now I no longer ask myself what have I got to lose? — If I’m unworthy … of the power I hold over you …”

This video was recorded in the home studio in Seattle where Fretboard Journal does its video sessions.  Check out Mills’so-called partscaster, modeled on Ry’s legendary Coodercaster electric slide guitar.  And the sound it makes, run through the most seasick-inducing tremolo this side of Plant & Krauss’s Raising Sand.

A song and singer more than worthy.   

A Strange Meeting


Twenty years ago, a Benedictine monk from Massachusetts stood in Florence considering an empty cupola on one wall of the Orsanmichele, the old granary in the city.

When he returned to the United States, he found a book his mother had saved for him – a book of essays about the saints by contemporary writers — and turned to an essay about St. Thomas the Apostle, a.k.a. “doubting” Thomas.  It dealt specifically with a particular rendering of the saint by Andrea del Verrocchio, the Florentine master sculptor, freshly restored and on display in the Metropolitan Museum before its return to Florence; and as he read it, the monk realized that this particular St. Thomas was the very sculpture that had been missing from the empty cupola that had caught his eye in Florence.

The monk was Iain MacLellan, OSB.  The book was A Tremor of Bliss, and the essay about St. Thomas was one I’d written — really the first thing I’d written about religion and the arts to show up in a book:

The Lehman wing was brightly lit - and there the two figures loomed up like some medieval prophet’s vision of the Renaissance beyond: Christ and Saint Thomas, a pas de deux in shining bronze, Christ’s right hand raised in blessing and his left one pulling his cloak away from his side so that Thomas, leaning toward him, might see the wound there, and touch it, and know him as the risen Lord. I wasn’t just looking anymore. Something majestic was being enacted in the next room. I went closer to see for myself. But I am getting ahead of my story, and Saint Thomas’s.

Twenty years later – yesterday – Fr. Iain and I finally met, when I joined him at Saint Anselm College in Manhester, New Hampshire, to speak in a lecture series based at the college’s impressive Chapel Art Center.  My lecture was called “The Art of Transcendence in the Age of Technology,” but before considering audio recordings, the iPhone, and the like, Iain and I marveled together at the ancient and perennial technology – the book – that put the two of us in conversation twenty years before we met.

Once behind the microphone, I began by telling the story of a different monk’s – a different Thomas’s – engagement with technology:

In the early sixties Thomas Merton, who had written lyrically about his life of silence and solitude as a Trappist monk in Kentucky, erected a hermitage on the monastery grounds: a cinder-block structure with a porch, a stone hearth, and an altar. He read and wrote and prayed there, and he was as happy as he had ever been anywhere. But he found that the place wasn’t complete without a certain technology. “Borrowed a record player,” he wrote in his journal. “Played Joan Baez over and over again… . One record I like more and more is Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61’ …”

A Tremor of Bliss is out of print — for now — but the essay is available in the digital archives of Commonweal, which has made its site open to all at no charge this month to celebrate the journal’s 90th anniversary.    

Truly, Things Have Changed


Stephen Dubner’s book is in mind this week.  No, not Freakonomics; I mean Turbulent Souls, the story of (as the subtitle has it) “A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family.”

Turbulent Souls (I wrote in a review for Commonweal in 1999) is “a classic conversion story … . so solid and recognizable that you forget it is made up of facts he had to coax out of long-lost relatives with a notebook and a tape recorder.”  Fifteen years after publication, one news story after another has brought the book back into view.

One is the Baltimore Orioles’s bid for the American League pennant, their first such run in a couple of decades.  The youngest of eight children, Stephen in the book tells the story of how his father assigned-slash-gave each of the children a team of his or her own to root for.  Stephen got the Orioles, and he became as devoted an Orioles fan as any I know.   Well, the O’s just lost four straight to the Royals; I hope he’s taking the loss well.

Another is the death of David Greenglass, whose testimony – false testimony, Greenglass later said – sent his sister Ethel and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, to the electric chair, convicted of spying for the Soviets and sentenced to death. David and Ethel Greenglass were cousins of Stephen’s mother – Florence Greenglass – and in the book the untold story of the Stephen’s parents’ vestigial Judaism is compounded by the largely untold story of his mother’s cousins’ tabloid-hyped betrayal of one another.

And then there’s the synod on the family in Rome.  Since the mid-synod summary was released a few days ago, plenty of people have been insisting that when it comes to Catholic teaching on the family (as my Georgetown colleague Tom Farr told Newsweek“there is very little here that is new other than emphasis and tone.”

That’s a debatable point: but what’s not debatable is that in Catholic life, and in the process of change, Catholic-style, much depends on emphasis and tone.

Turbulent Souls makes this clear.  Seventy-five years ago – when the Greenglasses were growing up on the Lower East Side – many Catholics regarded Jews and Judaism with an “emphasis and tone” something like contempt, and strictly observant Jewish families treated their children who became Christians (as Stephen’s parents did) as all but dead.  Then, with the Second Vatican Council, a change in Catholic “emphasis and tone” regarding Jews and Judaism anticipated a change in church teaching, which brought about further changes in the relationships between Catholics and Jews – changes substantial enough that on Good Friday in 1996 John Cardinal O’Connor (who, it turns out, was from a Jewish family) could preach an approving homily about Stephen’s conversion from Catholicism to Judaism from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

It was a change in “emphasis and tone” that at once reflected fundamental changes and called such change forth.   

In the Catholic world, often as not, that’s how change happens.  

Expect a little turbulence.  

For the Princes of the Church, Remedial Education

“… the Church, an expert in humanity … “

That phrase from one of the overnight summaries of the Synod on the Family, spotted in a passage of flatfootedly translated Vaticanese, caught my eye as much as any of the frankly remarkable statements coming out of the Synod.  But for me it underscores just what is so significant about the synod, and about where Francis is leading the church – wherever it is that we all wind up together.

Here’s how.  For many of us, the claim of Catholicism – the attraction of it– has to do in large part with its account of human nature.  The Hebrew Bible understands the human person as “born to trouble as the sparks fly up.”  The New Testament, as expressed through the long subsequent history of the church, understands the human person as at once broken and fixed – not made perfect, but made new and something like whole in the effort.

The church’s expertise, such as it is, is rooted in its anthropology, that is.   It’s on this basis that the church has any claim to be “expert in humanity.”   And it’s from the church’s claim to be “expert in humanity” that so many of its other attributes depend, and its blessings (such as they are) flow.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  But for several decades, if not longer – for the whole lives of those of us who are younger than fifty, at the very least — the church’s claim to be expert in humanity has been belied and undermined by the church leadership’s flagrant indifference to the experience of humanity outside the bounds of the church, as found in the family in particular.  I mean families broken and reconstituted; families envisioned, imagined, fashioned, and maintained on the ground out of necessity; families whose members cherish one another as family first of all, putting the family bond above differences that might divide them.

At the same time, the church’s claim to be “expert in humanity” has been compromised drastically by its leaders’ willingness to use the world’s most cynical expertise to deny their own failure to protect the rights of children entrusted to them by families beyond numbering.

Now all of a sudden in Rome here are the princes of the church willing to learn as well as teach – willing to learn from people with experience of divorce, of companionship outside of marriage, of homosexuality.

For the church, this synod is summer school held a few weeks late, the first course in a remedial education in human nature – a first step on the path toward its becoming something like “expert in humanity” once again.

Responding to the synod, Andrew Sullivan appended to his usual “Know hope” the expression “Know joy."  And the joy for Andrew, I suspect, is not simply the joy of a gay Catholic who finally hears himself recognized and welcomed rather than censured, but the joy of a Catholic whose own considerable expertise in humanity his church now actively seeks.

Know hope. Know joy, indeed.   

A Hundred Seconds of Solitude


Aaron Siskind was teaching English in Manhattan in 1929 when he received a camera as a wedding gift.  A teacher he already was; a photographer he soon became, taking pictures of city life for the New York Photo League, and late in his first decade he took this photograph of St. Joseph’s House, the Catholic Worker house in Manhattan, probably at its longtime Mott Street location on the Lower East Side.

What’s striking about this photograph, to my eye, is the profound solitude of the figure.  The canonical images of the Catholic Worker movement from its founding era show people in groups: men on the soup line, Catholic Workers “selling” the current issue of the newspaper for the proverbial “a penny a copy,” Catholic Workers arranged in awkward semi-formality outside St. Joseph’s House for a group portrait.

Here the figure, whoever he is, he has gone to the back of the building and found a little space and light; and the photograph finds him in counterpoint with the figure silhouetted in the front doorway of the building, who is possibly seeking a little space and light himself.

Which one is a Catholic Worker, and which is a guest who has come for a meal?  You can’t tell.  We can’t tell the difference.  That is the point of the photograph, and of the movement.

St. Joseph’s House is now at 36 East First Street, still on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Earlier this fall some of the present-day Catholic Workers sought out StoryCorps, hoping to record firsthand recollections of Dorothy Day, the movement’s foundress.  We’re now making arrangements to incorporate these into the American Pilgrimage Project, a partnership between StoryCorps and Georgetown devoted to gathering the stories of the role religious belief plays in the experience of ordinary Americans at crucial moments in their lives.

A slideshow of Siskind’s early work from yesterday’s Times is here.  Siskind’s photograph of the St. Joseph’s House interior is here.  

Shoes of Spanish Leather


If you’re a member of the proud band of devotees who still read print magazines, you’ve probably noticed: where once you would grab a magazine for the sideline or the beach or the airport, now you grab two or three – because each magazine has fewer and smaller articles than it used to, and not enough to get you through.

Not so the current Rolling Stone.  It’s “the TV issue” – usually a pretext, as such theme issues are, for the editors to step aside from actual articles and substitute a package of caption-y items surrounded by photographs and witty headlines.  But this one has a double-issue’s worth of material apart from the TV package: about the staged release of U2’s new record, and Gary Clark’s new double live record, and Leonard Cohen’s new record (lyrics pre-released in The New Yorker), and Lucinda Williams’ new one ( “an unbroken slow dance through one woman’s Southern soul”), and Naomi Klein’s long-gestating book about climate change (and her thyroid cancer), and the novel about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and Smokey Robinson’s songs of four decades, and the Koch Brothers’ “volume enhancement” (theft, that is) of Native American oil, and Tiny Fey’s first failure, This Is Where I Leave You (“This comedy about a death is a funeral for the audience”), and Daryl Hannah’s dalliance with Neil Young.

And the photograph above, by Danny Clinch, of Bob Dylan keeping up with the news from across the border in shoes of Spanish leather.

And Stevie Nicks’ top hat:

It’s a very special top hat: it’s from the 1920s, and you can’t find another one like it. So the hat has its own roadie, its own box and its own cage. It’s always protected.

And comic Steve Rannazzisi’s spot-on insight about the perilous state of the NFL:

The Jaguars look like they play in NFL Europe now. And those Buccaneer uniforms, with the digital numbers, are pretty bad. But what can you do with a Buccaneer? Dress them like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean?

All that, and the season’s television, too.  Taking it to the sideline now.   And already the next issue, with Paul Krugman’s spirited defense of President Obama, is up online.   

A Prizewinner Fit for the New “Americanah”


So the Nobel Prize in literature goes to … Patrick Modiano, the French author who (as Liberation has it) “a centré toute son œuvre sur le Paris de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, dépeignant le poids des événements tragiques d’une époque troublée sur le destin de personnages ordinaires” – who has focused his body of work on the Paris of World War II, tracing the effects of tragic events on the lives of ordinary people.

But the Nobel just as well could have gone to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, if Times book critic Dwight Garner had had any say in the matter.

Here’s what Dwight did say, in a “notebook” piece about the Swedish Academy’s fatal attraction to writers little known in the country of Amazon where Stephen is King:

The Nobel committee might also, to wake everyone up, award the prize to a writer with only a book or two under his or her belt. This would be the rough equivalent of Barack Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Give it to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ben Lerner or Tahmima Anam or Z. Z. Packer, and let’s see what happens.

The prizes Adichie has gotten include a National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur “genius grant.”  She is at Georgetown today, speaking and reading from her work at Gaston Hall, and I am vexed not to be there.  I am vexed because her work is being written out at the leading edge of a new literature, in which Anglophone writers of African citizenship and heritage live and write here and there at once, and make their multiplicity a point of entry, a tool with which to probe the multiplicity of all of us.  Where she is, I need to be.

To see Adichie’s novel Americanah on the shelf in the house of dear friends in South Africa – Zimbabweans now involved in publishing and higher education in Cape Town – was to be reminded of how fully the winds of literary influence bloweth where they listeth.

Strange to think that, just a little more than half a century ago, to be a Jewish kid from Newark was to be, essentially, an immigrant in the mainstream American society represented at the time by the universities in Cambridge and New Haven and Providence – as seen in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Here – courtesy of Dwight – is Roth’s characteristically mordant complaint about the mulish Scandinavian-mandarins who once again have withheld the prize of prizes from him:

“I wonder if I had called ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism,’ if I would thereby have earned the favor of the Swedish Academy.”

Now at Emory, the Flannery O’Connor We Never Knew

“Well I have seen the production and I thought it was slop of the third water.  I aver that everybody connected in any way with it, except me, had a stinking pole cat for a mother and father.”

That’s Flannery O’Connor, being Flannery O’Connor —- and, more precisely, stating her considered critical opinion of a 1957 CBS television adaptation of her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (starring Gene Kelly as Mr. Shiftlet) in a letter to George Haslam, a teacher of hers.

For those of us who are devoted to Flannery O’Connor, everything she wrote is significant; and the particular significance of that critical opinion is that it didn’t appear in The Habit of Being, the 1979 volume of O’Connor’s letters; it appeared a decade later, when the Library of America published an omnibus volume of her works, including a selection of letters.  Long unpublished, that is, eventually it was published – and it amplified our understanding of this great American writer.

Now our understanding of O’Connor is about to be amplified beyond our greatest expectations.  Through an arrangement with O’Connor’s close relatives and executors, Emory University has acquired thirty boxes of unpublished letters and other materials, including some 600 letters that she wrote to her mother, Regina, while an exile in the North, so to speak.

More than any other postwar American writer, O’Connor has gained in stature due to the adroit management of her estate and the artful editing and publishing of the work she left unpublished on her death in 1964: the essays in Mystery and Manners, the letters in The Habit of Being and the Library of America volume; and the composition book published last year as A Prayer Journal.

Speaking of novels, she once remarked that “I wish they could be written and deposited in a slot for the next century myself.”  Now it is the next century, and the letters and other writing that she deposited in a slot are coming into view — and the “second life” of her art is entering a new and fascinating phase.  I’m looking forward to taking a role in it.

Meanwhile, an essay of mine about the Prayer Journal is forthcoming in the New Republic, whose editors, like O’Connor, take the long view.

The photograph is of a 1944 journal kept by Flannery O’Connor and included in the materials now at Emory.   

Scorsese’s “Silence of the Jesuits”

What’s happening with Martin Scorsese’s movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which has been “Marty’s next film” since – depending on how you reckon things – the epoch BHBO (Before HBO went bold with original programming), the pre-streaming age, or the time before there was any inkling of a Jesuit pope?

A year ago, when I first taught Silence at Georgetown, word on the street (word in Daily Variety, that is) was that the movie had been cast and was going into production in the spring.

Today I taught Silence a second time, and the word on the (digital) street is that principal photography is complete and the movie is set for a 2015 release. The cast: Andrew Garfield as the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Rodrigues, Adam Driver as the Portuguese Jesuit missionary sidekick Garrpe, and Liam Neeson as the Portuguese Jesuit-gone-native-like-Conrad’s-and-Brando’s-and-Coppola’s-Mistah-Kurtz Ferreira.

And word is that the opening sequence features a spectacular, signature Scorsese shot: a close-up of Father Ferreira, sweat-soaked and in consternation, which then flips so that you realize that the consternating Ferreira is hung upside-down over a pit of excrement.

It’s a perfect image for the great Japanese novel’s spectacular upending of our conventional notions of piety and blasphemy, devotion and apostasy.  

Endo received an honorary degree at Georgetown back in the Eighties.  

Shout-out to American Jesuit cineaste Jim Martin: When you have tickets for an advance screening, can you comp me plus one, please?