They went with axe and rifle, when the trail was still to blaze, They went with wife and children, in the prairie-schooner days, With banjo and with frying pan—Susanna, don’t you cry! For I’m off to California to get rich out there or die!
We’ve broken land and cleared it, but we’re tired of where we are. They say that wild Nebraska is a better place by far. There’s gold in far Wyoming, there’s black earth in Ioway, So pack up the kids and blankets, for we’re moving out today!
The cowards never started and the weak died on the road, And all across the continent the endless campfires glowed. We’d taken land and settled but a traveler passed by— And we’re going West tomorrow—Lordy , never ask us why!
We’re going West tomorrow, where the promises can’t fail. O’er the hills in legions, boys, and crowd the dusty trail! We shall starve and freeze and suffer. We shall die, and tame the lands. But we’re going West tomorrow, with our fortune in our hands.
Stephen Vincent Benet
Something for a New Year weekend. The theme song from the movie How the West Was Won (1962). The death of Debbie Reynolds drew my attention to this film, which featured her in a starring role. The film itself is an uneven work, but it has a magnificent score which captures something of the spirit of the pioneers. The settlement of the West, from the Appalachians to the Pacific, is perhaps the defining event in the history of our nation and it receives too little historical comment. Thomas Jefferson thought it would take one hundred generations to settle the land beyond the Mississippi. Instead, from the ending of the American Revolution to the census of 1890 which proclaimed that the frontier no longer existed, barely five generations had passed, and there were a handful of Americans at the end still living who had lived through almost all of it. This epic tale is perhaps too large for the historians and thus today I have picked out two poems written by Stephen Vincent Benet that convey a small fragment of the passion, grandeur, tragedy and wonder of it all.
“Like my Master, I shall die upon the cross. Like him, a lance will pierce my heart so that my blood and my love can flow out upon the land and sanctify it to his name.”
Saint Paul Miki, statement before his martyrdom in 1597 in Japan
Bishop Barron has a good hard look at Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endo about two Jesuit missionaries who apostatized in Seventeenth century Japan:
The next day, in the presence of Christians being horrifically tortured, hung upside down inside a pit filled with excrement, he is given the opportunity, once more, to step on a depiction of the face of Christ. At the height of his anguish, resisting from the depth of his heart, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself, finally breaking the divine silence, telling him to trample on the image. When he does so, a cock crows in the distance. In the wake of his apostasy, he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, becoming a ward of the state, a well-fed, well-provided for philosopher, regularly called upon to step on a Christian image and formally renounce his Christian faith. He takes a Japanese name and a Japanese wife and lives out many long years in Japan before his death at the age of 64 and his burial in a Buddhist ceremony.
What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors?
My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright. Revisit Ferreira’s speech to Rodrigues about the supposedly simplistic Christianity of the Japanese laity if you doubt me on this score. I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives. Whereas the specially trained Ferreira and Rodrigues became paid lackeys of a tyrannical government, those simple folk remained a thorn in the side of the tyranny.
I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless. So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.
If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed high priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.
Saint Thomas Becket
In honor of the feast day of Saint Thomas Becket, a reminder of the history of Catholic England, when Catholics were willing to stand against the State if need be to protect the Honor of God. Becket (1964), although inheriting the historical howlers that existed in the play, and were known by the playwright Jean Anouilh who wisely preferred a poetic story to prosaic fact, (Becket was Norman not Saxon, Henry II was not a crowned juvenile delinquent, the armor, as is usual in medieval epics, is all wrong for the period, etc.), this classic film helped awaken in me a desire to learn about the history of the Church. With masterful performances by Richard Burton as “the holy blessed martyr” and Peter O’Toole as Henry II, the film brought alive to me as a child the high Middle Ages. The installation sequence brought home to me the important role of ceremony, tradition and symbolism in our Faith, a lesson I have never forgotten.
Legendary actress Debbie Reynolds has died of a stroke one day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher. It is said that she wished to be with her daughter, and I can deeply empathize with that sorrowful sentiment of a parent longing for a dead child. May the mercy of God enfold them both.
Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who “speak truth to power” but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.
Economist Thomas Sowell has decided to call it a day as a columnist at age 86. An understandable decision but a regrettable one. In a time when lunacy was often regarded as sound policy, Doctor Sowell has been a voice of consistent reason.
Tyler O’Neil at PJ Media has assembled 14 quotes from Sowell as a bitter sweet tribute to what we have enjoyed and to what we will be missing: 1. “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”
2. “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”
3. “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
4. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”
5. “Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”
6. “The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is: he confuses it with feeling.”
7. “Despite a voluminous and often fervent literature on ‘income distribution,’ the cold fact is that most income is not distributed: It is earned.”
Time for me to look at my predictions for this year and to dine on a bit of crow:
1. The GOP national ticket will consist of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but I am uncertain as to which of them will be the nominee for President.
The correct answer of course was neither.
2. By the time of the conventions Donald Trump will be a spent force. He will run third party in the fall with a Democrat in the second slot. He will draw about seven percent of the vote, and his votes will come from both parties.
That is certainly a large piece of crow to consume!
3. Clinton will win the Democrat nomination, unless health problems force her to retire from the race. Bernie Sanders will bolt the convention and run third party, drawing about two percent of the vote.
Not too shabby, especially concerning the health issue. Bernie Sanders was a good soldier for the Democrats, but the Green candidate did take about 1% of the vote right out of Clinton’s hide.
4. The Republicans will win the presidential race.
5. The Republicans will retain control of both Houses of Congress.
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today’s feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven’s blessing stream down upon them.
“Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers’ womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom, are justly hailed as “infant martyr flowers”; they were the Church’s first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.
 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
John 1: 1-5
Saint John, the Apostle whom Christ loved, was the youngest of the Apostles. Born perhaps around 6-15 AD he and his brother James, sons of Zebedee and Salome, were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Called by Christ to follow Him, they were nicknamed by Him Boanerges, sons of thunder, perhaps because of their asking Christ to call down lightning on those who did not follow Him, or perhaps a playful jab at the disposition of old Zebedee.
The two brothers were ambitious, asking Christ to allow them to sit by His side. He promised them only that they would drink from the cup He drank and be baptized in His Baptism. John’s brother James became the first of the Apostles to die a martyr’s death.
John far outlived all the other apostles, dying in exile on Patmos circa 100 AD. He witnessed the small defeated movement of the followers of Jesus after the Crucifixion swell into a mighty Church sweeping into every corner of the Roman Empire and beyond. He was the last living link to Christ and he set down what he remembered in that theological masterpiece, the Gospel of John. The other three Gospels give us Christ in unforgettable prose, the Gospel of John gives us Christ in lambent almost poetry, that has illuminated the humanity and the divinity of Christ for countless Christians down through the long ages. Through disciples like Saint Ignatius and Saint Polycarp he passed on to Christians who had never heard Christ the pure teaching of Christ that he had heard, and the love of Christ that burned within him.
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Cosmas of Prague, writing in 1119 about Saint King Wenceslaus
It has always seemed appropriate to me that the hymn Good King Wenceslas, written in 1853, ties together Saint Stephen and Saint King Wenceslas. Saint Stephen is the original martyr of Christ, the first of that glorious line of Christians who have testified to their Faith in the God who died for them by surrendering their own lives for Him. The Apostles had cut poor figures indeed on the night when Christ was betrayed, and Saint Stephen heroically and unforgettably demonstrated a better example, that would be followed by the Apostles themselves who later died as martyrs. Bravery in the face of a martyr’s death takes a great deal of courage and faith, and we Catholics have ever honored our martyrs.
Wenceslas was born in 907 into a turbulent time and place. The eldest son of Duke Vratislaus I of Bohemia, Bohemia was a country that was only beginning to convert to Christianity and was riven by conflicts between pagans and Christians, Germans and Czechs. His mother Drahomira was the daughter of a pagan tribal leader and had only converted at the time of her marriage. His father’s father was a Christian convert.
At the death of his father, in battle, in 921, his paternal grandmother, Ludmilla, briefly held the regency. His mother, Drahomira, who was a real piece of work, remained a pagan at heart, and had Ludmilla strangled. (Ludmilla, who had always been noted for her charity and her strong Christian faith, was canonized shortly after her death.) Wenceslas was now under the control of his murderous mother. In 924 or 925 Wenceslas began to rule and exiled his mother, understandably enough.
During his reign he was noted for his charity and the strong impetus he gave to the evangelization of Bohemia. He placed great reliance on Catholic missionary priests from Germany and this stirred resentment not only among his pagan subjects, but among some Czechs. Taking advantage of this opposition, his brother Boleslav had Wenceslas murdered as he was walking to mass in 935. From the instant of his death, Wenceslas was hailed as a martyr, popular devotion to him spurred by miracles that began at his funeral, and swiftly became the patron saint of Bohemia. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, bestowed the title of king upon him, posthumously. His brother, who would reign for almost four decades, now remorseful, helped spread Christianity throughout his kingdom during his reign and venerated the man he had murdered as a saint. His feast day on September 28 is celebrated as a national holiday in the Czech Republic.
But the Consul’s brow was sad, And the Consul’s speech was low, And darkly looked he at the wall, And darkly at the foe; “Their van will be upon us Before the bridge goes down; And if they once may win the bridge, What hope to save the town?”
Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the gate: “To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods,
“And for the tender mother Who dandled him to rest, And for the wife who nurses His baby at her breast, And for the holy maidens Who feed the eternal flame,— To save them from false Sextus That wrought the deed of shame?
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, With all the speed ye may; I, with two more to help me, Will hold the foe in play. In yon strait path a thousand May well be stopped by three: Now who will stand on either hand, And keep the bridge with me?”
Horatius at the Bridge
Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay
Washington crossing the Delaware is ingrained in the American psyche, and well it should be. Without Washington’s brilliant attack at Trenton against the Hessian garrison stationed there on December 26, 1776, his subsequent maneuver around the reacting British force under General Cornwallis, and his victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777, it is likely that the American Revolution would have died during the winter of 1776-1777, Washington’s army dissolving in the gloom and pessimism brought on by the string of American defeats of 1776. Instead, Washington’s victories brought out fresh levies of patriot militia from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, strengthening Washington’s army and causing the British to retreat from New Jersey. In the span of a week, Washington and his men altered the likely outcome of the American Revolution, and all subsequent history. Here is Washington’s report to the Continental Congress on the victory at Trenton:
Sir: I have the pleasure of Congratulating you upon the success of an enterprize which I had formed against a Detachment of the Enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday Morning. The Evening of the 25th I ordered the Troops intended for this Service [which were about 2400] to parade back of McKonkey’s Ferry, that they might begin to pass as soon as it grew dark, imagining we should be able to throw them all over, with the necessary Artillery, by 12 O’Clock, and that we might easily arrive at Trenton by five in the Morning, the distance being about nine Miles. But the Quantity of Ice, made that Night, impeded the passage of the Boats so much, that it was three O’Clock before the Artillery could all get over, and near four, before the Troops took up their line of march.
This made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke, but as I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events. I form’d my detachments into two divisions one to March by the lower or River Road, the other by the upper or Pennington Road. As the Divisions had nearly the same distance to March, I ordered each of them, immediately upon forcing the out Guards, to push directly into the Town, that they might charge the Enemy before they had time to form. The upper Division arrived at the Enemys advanced post, exactly at Eight O’Clock, and in three Minutes after, I found, from the fire on the lower Road that, that Division had also got up. The out Guards made but small Opposition, tho’ for their Numbers, they behaved very well, keeping up a constant retreating fire from behind Houses. We presently saw their main Body formed, but from their Motions, they seemed undetermined how to act. Being hard pressed by our Troops, who had already got possession of part of their Artillery, they attempted to file off by a road on their right leading to Princetown, but perceiving their Intention, I threw a body of Troops in their Way which immediately checked them. Finding from our disposition that they were surrounded, and that they must inevitably be cut to pieces if they made any further Resistance, they agreed to lay down their Arms. The Number, that submitted in this manner, was 23 Officers and 886 Men. Col Rall. the commanding Officer with seven others were found wounded in the Town. I dont exactly know how many they had killed, but I fancy not above twenty or thirty, as they never made any regular Stand. Our loss is very trifling indeed, only two Officers and one or two privates wounded. I find, that the Detachment of the Enemy consisted of the three Hessian Regiments of Lanspatch, Kniphausen and Rohl amounting to about 1500 Men, and a Troop of British Light Horse, but immediately upon the begining of the Attack, all those who were, not killed or taken, pushed directly down the Road towards Bordentown. These would likewise have fallen into our hands, could my plan have been compleatly carried into Execution. Genl. Ewing was to have crossed before day at Trenton Ferry, and taken possession of the Bridge leading out of Town, but the Quantity of Ice was so great, that tho’ he did every thing in his power to effect it, he could not get over.
All the armies that have ever marched All the navies that have ever sailed All the parliaments that have ever sat All the kings that ever reigned put together Have not affected the life of mankind on earth As powerfully as that one solitary life
From One Solitary Life
I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.
H. G. Wells
O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem